Even if Columbia became a city with a government, the nonprofit Columbia Association (CA), which charges property owners to run facilities and services, probably wouldn't dissolve, a public finance expert said at a symposium last night.
"You can reach a preliminary conclusion that the Columbia Association probably would have to continue to exist unless all the functions of the association could be moved over to a municipality," said Edward O. Clarke Jr., former chairman of the Piper & Marbury law firm's public finance department.
Mr. Clarke said enforcement of Columbia's restrictive architectural guidelines is but one example of functions now performed or overseen by the private Columbia Association that couldn't legally be performed by a government.
Identifying those functions that wouldn't be considered a public purpose under tax laws is "a study in itself," he told more than 100 residents at the Columbia Council's second symposium on governance.
The symposium on alternative forms of governance for the unincorporated community of 82,000 residents coincides with a citizens group's effort to bring the issue of incorporating Columbia as a municipality to referendum.
The Columbia Municipal League Inc., the pro-incorporation group, has collected more than 3,000 of the roughly 10,000 petition signatures it needs to request the Howard County Council's approval for a referendum.
The Columbia Association, a multifaceted homeowners association, imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, community services and parkland maintenance.
The 10-member elected Columbia Council, which directs CA, is comparing alternatives to the current system, which also includes 10 village associations.
Three speakers at the symposium in Wilde Lake village's Slayton House raised numerous questions and complexities inherent in converting Columbia into either a municipality or a more limited zTC special tax district. Among the sticky issues are taxation, borrowing, debt refinancing, transferring assets and legal contracts, or covenants.
Peter Kristian said Montgomery Village, an unincorporated Montgomery County community of 34,000 somewhat similar to Columbia, recently considered incorporating but dismissed the
Community leaders were reluctant to create another layer of government, didn't sense public support and couldn't ensure that the community's homeowners associations would turn over land to a government, said Mr. Kristian, the Montgomery Village Foundation's executive vice president.
"There were no assurances we wouldn't have several layers, no matter what we did," he said, including the umbrella Montgomery Village Foundation, several local homeowners associations and a municipal government.
"We felt that was too much," Mr. Kristian said. "If there was a way to get it wrapped in one government structure, we were all in favor."
Although Montgomery Village decided against a substantial change, Mr. Kristian said, he expected governance to be a recurring issue, as it has been in Columbia. "It's an important issue, at times emotional," he said. "It deserves folks' attention."
Judson P. Garrett Jr. discussed issues involved in creating a special tax district, which could be largely controlled by the county.
Possible advantages to incorporating as a municipality are the tax-deductibility of government property taxes, increased political clout and more direct control over community affairs and services, such as planning and zoning, the speakers said.