Columbia to look back while mapping for future Forum will review community's governance

May 31, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

After 25 years, it's time to examine how Columbia is run.

The Columbia Forum will take that idea up with about 400 Columbia residents next Saturday. The group is sponsoring a town meeting on governance from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College. All who are interested in the way the town is governed are invited.

Participants will consider four general possibilities:

* Giving control of Columbia Association functions to the county government.

* Creating a municipality with a city government.

* Creating a special tax district to replace the "lien" or annual hTC charge now levied by the Columbia Association.

* Keeping the Columbia Association in its current form, with improved service, or changing its structure.

Currently, Columbia has no official government. Functions such as police, fire protection and health are handled by the county.

Since it was founded June 21, 1967, the community has been planned by Howard Research and Development, an arm of the Rouse Co., and its amenities built and operated by the Columbia Association.

The non-profit association owns and maintains more than 2,000 acres of open space, as well as playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, a golf course and other facilities. Its policies are set by the Columbia Council, a group of elected representatives from each of the city's nine villages. The 10th village, River Hill, will elect a representative next April.

"The work group has seen some rather big potential savings that could result from creating either a special tax district or a municipality," said Alan M. Schwartz, chairman of the forum's Governance Initiative Work Group.

Those savings, which include making the equivalent of the Columbia Association's annual property charge deductible from income taxes, will be addressed by financial experts during the town meeting.

Bond experts will explain the advantages of being able to issue tax-exempt bonds and refinancing the association's debt, which Schwartz said has the potential of saving the city millions of dollars.

"Twenty-five years is a good time to have a retrospective and discuss the issues in the community," said Pamela Mack, the Columbia Association's vice president of community relations and member of a committee that helped organize the town meeting.

The effort is familiar for Mack and other longtime residents, however, because the same thing was done from 1976 to 1979.

The effort put forth legislation in January 1978 to create a special taxing district, but the state legislature killed the measure.

Although there are financial advantages of a municipality's ability to issue tax-exempt bonds, creating a new government also has drawbacks, Mack said. To begin with, the city could not maintain its current village structure. It would instead have to be divided into equal districts to distribute voting strength equally, she said.

Another possible problem would be figuring the cost of setting up a government, if that's what Columbia residents want. Representatives from the Maryland Municipal League and the University of Maryland's Institute for Governmental Services will try to tackle that question.

The meeting will begin with a panel discussion with representatives from the municipal league, the institute, the County Council, the Columbia Association, the Columbia Council, the county budget office and a municipal bond firm.

Columbia's founder, James W. Rouse, was to have delivered a keynote address to begin the meeting, but is recovering from bypass surgery and will not attend.

At 11 a.m., the participants will split up into focus groups of no more than 20 people who will each discuss the four options with the aid of a facilitator. At 12:30 p.m., the participants will reassemble and report on their discussions.

All ideas and comments from the meeting will be used by the Governance Initiative in compiling its report to the forum's board of directors.

In October, the forum will complete its four-year Columbia Voyage, which brought hundreds of Columbia residents together to study various community issues. The "Landfall" will involve a series of reports on these subjects, including one on governance, Tucker said.

"If it does nothing more than to bring people together to talk about their town, then it will be a great success," Tucker said of Saturday's meeting.

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