Historic Columbia Budget?

December 28, 1993

At first glance, the Columbia Association's proposed 1994-95 budget, which includes $31.8 million in spending and no increase in the property assessment rate, appears as dull as many such documents. But look closer: You might detect the faint stirrings of contention among the 10-member Columbia Council, which controls the association's purse strings. This division may even eventually force the council to deal with a growing demand to lower homeowners' assessments and to institute austerity measures.

Columbia residents are getting very little in the way of improvements in the proposed budget, a 3.9 percent increase over this year's spending. But residents are being asked to pay more in membership fees -- between $6 and $21 a year more tacked onto memberships that already range in price from $384 for individuals to $525 for families. Meanwhile, the budget calls for a 4 percent merit raise for the association's 170 full-time employees.

A minority of council members is expressing varying degrees of dissatisfaction with this status-quo proposal. The most vocal, such as Councilman Chuck Rees, are advocating large cuts in the fees assessed against Columbians, which would require the council to "cut across the board and take a look at particular programs."

Councilman Mike Rethman, more of a moderate, has asked that fellow members at least take a look at more modest assessment reductions of between 1.5 cents and 3 cents. Currently, a person owning a $150,000 home pays a $547.50 annual levy in addition to the cost of the membership needed to gain access to a host of Columbia recreational facilities.

So far, his colleagues have rebuked Mr. Rethman's suggestions, for which they deserve criticism. Those council members who rejected his proposal convey the kind of arrogance that bolsters the arguments of critics who contend the current system lacks basic democratic principles.

It is refreshing that there is now a clear, vocal minority on the council demanding greater accountability. We hope it encourages more introspection, participation, debate and change. In fact, in spite of the council's commitment to business as usual, the coming year's fiscal document could be a historic relic: the last budget that denies residents the opportunity to explore other options.

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