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Delegate submitting assessment measure


Plans to limit increases in Columbia's annual property charges via state law is putting a Howard County delegate at loggerheads with the Columbia Association.

Tomorrow, Del. Shane E. Pendergrass is to submit state legislation that would impose a 10 percent mandatory ceiling on rising property assessments in Columbia, despite Columbia Association opposition.

Skyrocketing property values in Columbia have produced complaints about sharply higher association charges, which are similar to property taxes. But the association has not gone far enough, Pendergrass believes, in giving residents relief.

In a 5-5 vote at 12:05 a.m. Friday, members of the association's board of directors decided that while they would accept a voluntary 10 percent cap, allowing the state to require one would threaten the autonomy of the nonprofit homeowners association.

"This organization is not going to be here if [the legislation] happens," board Chairman Miles Coffman said. "We have started the process of destroying this organization."

Pendergrass said Jan. 16 that she would -- at the board's request -- delay submitting a bill that would alter the process of amending Columbia Association covenants if the association supported the charge-cap bill. She told the board she would go forward with both bills if the association did not support the cap bill.

"I would have preferred to be able to come to a happy agreement," Pendergrass said Friday. "They did their best, but I felt obliged to my constituents to follow through on what I committed to them."

Several days later, the board asked Pendergrass to change the bill to make the cap voluntary, but she refused.

"It truly guts the bill," Pendergrass said, about the idea of making the legislation voluntary.

Coffman said the board is waiting for Pendergrass' next move before it decides whether to fight the legislation. He said that if the board supports the bill that would make a cap a requirement "we might as well invite the legislators in here to run the organization."

"This is not Shane's organization to run," Coffman said. "Let us go forward with [the cap]. Give us the tools, we'll use them."

The association's covenants require that the annual charge is collected on the maximum assessed property value, rather than phasing in higher assessments over three years, as the state does. The covenants can only be changed with the unanimous approval of property owners.

Pendergrass' covenant bill would allow the association's operating rules to be changed by a referendum brought by at least 10 percent of the property owners. A simple majority would have to participate to make the vote valid, and 33 percent of Columbia's property owners would then have to affirm the change.

Pendergrass drafted her bills after many Columbia residents lobbied the board to either reduce the annual assessment rate or offer rebates after east Columbians' assessments jumped an average of 33.4 percent last year, based on state property valuations.

That increase brought an extra $2.7 million in revenue to the homeowners association's 2004 budget. West Columbia home values recently increased even more -- an average of 47.4 percent.

Pendergrass' legislation is retroactive to cover east Columbia's increase. It also contains an escape clause, allowing the Columbia Association to not impose the 10 percent ceiling if the association determines that annual assessment revenue is too low to pay interest on the association's debts.

The association is addressing the annual charge in its 2005 and 2006 budgets, which include a rate reduction of 10 cents per $100 of value. If the board approves that in the 2005 budget this month, the rate would be 63 cents per $100 of valuation assessed on 50 percent of the home's value. The board is also scheduled to tentatively approve the 2006 budget this month.

Board member Cabell Greenwood of River Hill said opposing Pendergrass' bill is not the same as opposing a 10 percent cap. He said the problem is that the cap is a requirement.

"If this passes the way it is, what's next?" Greenwood said. "There is a slippery slope here."

Board member Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice, who voted to support the legislation, said he thinks it wouldn't do "one-tenth of the harm predicted."

Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills, said she believes that Coffman's predictions of the association's doom is "an incredible overstatement."

The bill would provide "relief to thousands of residents of Columbia," said Russell, who also supports the legislation. "It is the duty of legislators to listen to people and take action they think is most beneficial."

Residents can testify about the bills at a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.

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