Columbia governance: More opinions sought Are significant changes needed?

September 07, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

A year after releasing a report outlining options for changing the way Columbia is governed -- a report that took four years to produce -- the Columbia Forum is asking county government, the Columbia Association (CA) and the University of Maryland's urban studies department to consider the issue.

Sonny Croson, the chairman of the Forum's governance committee, said the volunteer organization formed to study Columbia's future and recommend improvements, hopes to get responses to issues raised in its September 1992 report, "An Agenda for Columbia," by next spring.

But Alan Schwartz, who advocated forming a commission to analyze alternatives to the Columbia Association, the nonprofit agency that runs the unincorporated city of 80,000, says that further delays don't make sense.

"My concern is this is an issue that's been around for many years and has been examined by so many people," said Mr. Schwartz, a Columbia attorney who is the former chairman of the Forum's governance committee.

"I wonder whether the process is the goal rather than any end. Obviously, it needs to be brought to conclusion in a relatively expedient manner," said Mr. Schwartz.

But Mr. Croson said he believes that there's no need to rush the process. "Wouldn't it be a shame if we got down the track and made a decision regarding governance without input from the key organizations? It is long and drawn out. However, it's not a simple, trivial matter," he said.

"The general consensus now is that there's not a whole lot of need for big changes to be made, but there is some need for change and there is a need for education."

The Forum report raised the issues of Columbia's relationship with the county, citizen participation, effectiveness of village boards, voting rights, representation and taxation.

With no formal government, the Columbia Association runs city recreational facilities, maintains park land and open space among other functions, but most services are provided by county government.

CA, which was created by Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co., administers a $30 million annual budget, generated mostly through a 73-cent annual property lien.

A 10-member Columbia Council -- one representative from each village -- sets policy and the budget for CA and acts as both the corporation's board of directors and an advisory council for residents.

The Forum report, released last fall after four years of deliberations and community meetings in commemoration of Columbia's 25th anniversary, recommended seeking financing for a commission that would consider alternatives such as special tax district or a limited municipality.

As a municipality or special tax district, Columbia could save millions of dollars by refinancing debt and through lower interest rates paid for capital projects. With more than $80 million in long-term debt, Columbia isn't eligible for lower interest rates charged by lenders to comparably-sized municipalities. Also, residents would be able to deduct annual property charges on income tax returns, according to the report.

The Columbia Council now is reviewing CA's charter to determine how to clarify the organization's functions and make the system more democratic. For example, it is considering provisions for referendums and a "one person, one vote" policy.

Council Vice Chairwoman Fran Wishnick said an evaluation of alternative structures of governance -- first studied in the late 1970s -- dovetails with the charter review.

"We owe it to ourselves, the community and the Columbia Forum to respond to why we're staying the way we are or what change we are working toward," she said. "We know we don't have enough answers, with all the reports."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said the county would cooperate with a request for an evaluation. He said he doesn't favor Columbia incorporating as a municipality because it could result in a duplication of services and increased costs for Columbia residents. "But I haven't made an exhaustive study," he added.

Mr. Schwartz said he was disappointed that neither the county nor CA could help finance a commission to investigate complex financial, legal and administrative matters. But he said he wasn't surprised because the issue is politically explosive.

"Obviously, there was little interest in a countywide or Columbia commission being formed to complete the process," he said, adding that governance of Columbia "should be maintained as an issue of attention, whatever it takes."

Mr. Schwartz agreed with Mr. Croson that Columbia residents must be better educated about the current structure and options.

"I guess the real question is how long is this going to be studied before a real vote is taken by the community about what they want to do," Mr. Schwartz said.

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