GOP group urges county management of Columbia


The Howard County Republican Club voiced its opposition to turning Columbia into Maryland's second-largest city yesterday, proposing instead that management of the planned community of 80,000 residents be turned over to the county.

The club suggested liquidating the Columbia Association (CA), the nonprofit agency that manages the town's facilities and programs, and having county government take over management of the association's services.

The club's proposal immediately drew sharp criticism from the county's top Republican, County Executive Charles I. Ecker, and some members of the Columbia Council, which sets policy and spending decisions for Columbia.

Mr. Ecker said the club's proposal raised more questions than it answered.

"There are a lot of fiscal and legal issues that weren't addressed," he said, including how much in taxes would be lost to the county and state if the annual liens paid to CA by all Columbia property owners would become tax deductible and how much would it cost the county to take over CA's functions

But Brian Meshkin, president of the club, and other club members said that the proposal is not meant to answer questions but to stir thoughtful debate. He also defended the proposal, saying the club believes that dissolving CA and turning over its management to the county would benefit residents.

One direct benefit, Mr. Meshkin said, is that the annual lien payment to CA, which has a $32 million annual budget and 180 full-time and 700 to 1,100 part-time employees, might become tax deductible -- although that is by no means certain. The lien would likely have to be converted to a property tax surcharge for it to gain deduction status, some tax experts have suggested.

The club advocates such a change and hopes to stir citizen debate on its proposal at meetings it is planning to hold at local libraries.

Mr. Meshkin said the club also believes Columbia citizens would see greater fiscal accountability on how lien payments are spent if Columbia were set up as a special tax district under county government control.

Greg Siracusa, a member of the club who co-authored the proposal, said CA is no longer the most efficient way to operate the town.

The association operates partly as government, for-profit business, homeowner's association and nonprofit organization, he said.

"CA has the weaknesses of each and the strengths of none," he said.

Michael Rethman, a Columbia council member from Hickory Ridge village, also found fault with the club's proposal.

Mr. Rethman said that while there may be broad support among Columbia residents for getting the lien payment qualified as a tax deduction, that alone shouldn't be the driving reason for altering how Columbia is managed.

"These people pushing these proposals overlook that Columbia, the way it is now, has a lot of clout and accessibility at the state and county level. But we don't have to take on many of the problems that the state and county have to deal with everyday," he said.

The county Republican Club, which says it represents about 300 households, is a citizens group not officially connected to the county GOP central committee.

The club is but the latest group to jump into the debate over how Columbia should be managed since September. That's when the Columbia Municipal League Inc., a citizens group, first launched a petition drive to force placing the incorporation question before Columbia voters.

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