CA fees dominate delegate hearing


Columbia residents lined up last night despite predicted bad weather to tell Howard County's General Assembly delegation what to do about their homeowner association's fast-rising property fees.

They listened first to two hours of testimony about subjects including where to put methadone clinics and the integrity of voting machines, and sleet had begun falling outside the George Howard Building in Ellicott City by the time their issue was raised.

The annual hearing drew about 70 people, but the largest group was there to support a bill sponsored by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Democrat, that would limit increases in the Columbia Association's lien fees to no more than 10 percent a year and make it easier to change the private organization's regulations.

"There is no question in my mind we need outside help from the state legislature," said resident Richard Tobin. "If a 5 percent [assessment] cap with a three-year phase-in is OK for the county, 10 percent should be OK for CA. Columbia property owners are serving CA's needs, instead of the other way around," he said.

All but five of the 25 people who signed up to speak on that subject agreed.

A dissenter was David Leonard, who said in a prepared statement, "A mandated cap could be very harmful in future years when, for example, property values decrease, as they have done in the past - most recently from 1992-95."

Joan Lancos, a former county planning board member and Columbia Council board member, also opposed the tax-cap bill, saying it "unnecessarily, and possibly illegally, infringes on the rights of a private corporation."

Pendergrass, joined by most Columbia delegates and Warren E. Miller, a western county Republican, introduced the bills Monday.

The Columbia Association property charges, which resemble property taxes, shot up last year for residents east of U.S. 29, where state assessments rose by an average of about 33 percent. This year, west Columbia property values increased by about 47 percent.

Despite a Columbia Association move to cut the tax rate by 10 cents per $100 of assessed value, property charge bills will increase sharply because of the way the Columbia Association operates. Instead of phasing in the new value over three years and limiting increases to 10 percent, as the state does, the association goes to the new value immediately.

One other bill affecting Columbia drew little comment, but the Rouse Co. weighed in with a letter left on every legislator's desk.

The measure is sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat, and would tax undeveloped land in Columbia at a higher rate after 20 years, which could cost the Rouse Co. an additional $500,000 a year in taxes.

Bobo argued last night that the company has benefited from the law long enough and that the agricultural assessment that values vacant land in the planned town at $600 an acre ought to be revalued at what it is now worth.

But Rouse Vice President Dennis W. Miller's letter called the bill "bad public policy and unfair," in that it tries to "solve fiscal problems at the expense of a single taxpayer."

The local bill drawing the most comment was sponsored by Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican. It would take away the power of the County Council to restore cuts to the school budget made by a county executive. Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, supports the bill, said Herman Charity, his aide.

Bates said that allowing the County Council that power "is more like mob rule," but most speakers on the issue felt otherwise - contending that schools need County Council members' help to maintain the county system's quality.

"I don't want too much power to go to one person," Stanley Daniell said.

The hearing is the third the delegation has held since November to review local bills.

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