Columbia government debated again

January 09, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Neil Noble pays the Columbia Association more than $400 annually, but he says he has a hard time identifying any tangible return.

"As far as I know, I'm just sending good money after bad," he says.

Mark Riso disagrees, saying Columbia residents pay "higher taxes," but reap dividends because the association does a great job enhancing the community's appearance and providing amenities to improve the quality of life.

"They analyze what residents want, and provide that," says Mr. Riso, a Hickory Ridge village resident. "They want to make sure it's a place you want to live."

But Mr. Noble, who advocates replacing the association with a more traditional form of government, says that the planned community of 75,000 to 80,000 residents has outgrown the private, nonprofit association that manages recreational facilities, community programs and open space.

"That [a local government] would give me something concrete for my money," said the member of the Oakland Mills architectural committee. "It would make my [annual charge], at the very least, tax-deductible."

Mr. Riso feels the 26-year-old unincorporated community should avoid that route.

"Other towns collect taxes, fix things and don't do too much more," he says. "I think Columbia works a lot better. There's much more commitment to the community."

Mr. Noble and Mr. Riso represent opposing sides of a long-smoldering, issue -- whether Columbians would be better off as constituents of a city government instead of the private association created by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

The Columbia Council, the association's board of directors, has formed a committee to seek financial and legal advice on incorporating as a municipality or special tax district. It plans to hire a consultant -- if the price is right -- to analyze costs and benefits.

"We want to find out what's possible and what's not possible and close the issue for a while," said Karen Kuecker, chairwoman of the 10-member elected council.

Columbia, a group of 10 villages planned and developed by Rouse, operates more like a large homeowners' association than a city. Citizen committees have studied alternatives extensively since the mid-1970s.

No public outcry

"This is one of the most important things people in Columbia will face going forward," said committee Chairman David Berson of River Hill village.

The council is going ahead with the review though members say there hasn't been a public outcry for change, because organizations should "rethink themselves," Mr. Berson said.

"[The association] has served us well for 20-plus years," he said. "Is it still appropriate? Can we do something to make residents better off?"

Some residents say incorporation would provide a more accountable, open and democratic administration, increase residents' influence and involvement and deliver financial advantages, such as lower interest rates and property levies that are deductible on income tax returns.

Columbia resident Ernest Erber, a retired urban planner, said a ,, private homeowner association is valuable in developing a new town, but should be replaced eventually with municipal self-government.

"I'm as aware as everyone else of partisanship in local politics. But I buy the concept with all the problems as superior and healthier than a property association," he said, adding that association leaders appear to "frustrate any real opposition."

'Outlived its usefulness'

Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizen advocacy group that is a frequent critic of the association, contends the association has "outlived its usefulness."

"Thomas Jefferson would roll over in his grave if he saw how Columbia was governed. It's contrary to major principles upon which the country was founded," said Mr. Hekimian.

He noted that Columbia doesn't have a "one-person, one-vote" policy for elections, a public competitive bidding process or "checks and balances" within its administration.

"Should Columbia be governed by covenants developed 26 years ago by a developer from here to eternity?" Mr. Hekimian asked. "Is it appropriate in the U.S.A. that a city of 75,000 ought to be governed like that?"

Others say incorporating would bring divisive partisan politics, a more expensive bureaucracy and a decline in services. Columbia doesn't need a government because the county provides basic services, such as police protection, they say.

"Although there are kinks in any system, Columbia for the most part works," said James Oremland, Oakland Mills village board chairman. "I don't think it needs to be changed drastically. It needs to be continually looked at and improved."

A municipal government would cost more and deliver less, he said.

Columbia could afford it

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