Running Columbia: a Real Wonderland

COMMENT

March 13, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

It's hard enough fighting city hall.

Try fighting the Columbia Association, and you'll really know what frustration is all about.

First of all, you have the association's overseers, a council of elected people from the city's 10 villages, who insist upon calling themselves a board of directors rather than a political entity.

The distinction is significant because it speaks to the view that the Columbia Association is a private business and not subject to the scrutiny and standards imposed on public institutions.

And, by the way, all you residents of Columbia, you're actually shareholders with the same political clout of citizens elsewhere, but not really.

If you accept this, you'll begin to understand why the Columbia Council summarily approved a $32 million association budget for fiscal 1995 with nary an alteration.

A majority of council members decided that they should leave the nasty little details of funding to the association's managers, lest they be accused of doing what they were elected to do.

Their premise was, and is, that boards of directors don't micro-manage the companies they oversee. Apparently, they don't do much at all. But then, when you're not quite sure what you are, it's hard to know what it is you're supposed to do.

If all of this is beginning to sound a little strange, maybe even a tad crazy, just think of yourself as having stepped through Alice's looking glass: You're in a wonderland where nothing is as it appears to be and all of it is backward.

A majority of Columbia Council members have stepped through the looking glass. A few have not.

The ones who aren't blithely chasing the White Rabbit are the activists in the bunch.

Somehow they got the idea that they were elected for a purpose, and that purpose is to make the Columbia Association a leaner, saner organization.

I got a letter the other day from one of those activists, Charles A. Rees, who outlines several areas where he feels the Columbia Association has gone astray.

I asked association officials about these concerns and, in nearly every case, it was as if Mr. Rees and the officials were not only on a different page, they were on different planets.

Here are some examples:

* Mr. Rees says that many multi-million dollar construction projects undertaken by the association are not subjected to open and competitive bidding, which would in theory result in the association's getting the best value for its dollar.

Association officials insist that isn't the case. While the association never publicly advertises when it is soliciting bids, it does require bids on projects costing more than $1,000.

How do they do this? It picks contractors from a list of providers who either have a track record in working with the association or want to establish a record for the future.

It all sounds a bit clubby to me, but then I obviously have shied away from the looking glass.

* Then there is the question of the lien paid by Columbia residents for the association's many amenities.

Mr. Rees says the association overcharges because it assesses homes at 50 percent of market value, as opposed to the 40 percent applied by the county. Not only that, while county assessment increases are phased in over three years, the association uses new assessments immediately.

In other words, they're raking it in.

State legislators approved the measure that allows groups like the Columbia Association to assess at a higher rate back in the 1970s.

Officials of the association say the measure gives them greater control over the organization's finances.

In other words -- and this is strictly my interpretation -- it's just plain hard to jump off the gravy train.

* Then there is the question of how much the association spends on salaries for 170 employees.

Mr. Rees has his own ideas, but I'm more intrigued by the approximately $104,000 earned annually by Association President Padriac Kennedy.

Keep in mind that Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke earns about $60,000 a year and County Executive Charles I. Ecker earns $80,000. Both men run organizations that are gargantuan compared to the association.

But officials have an answer for that too. Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Ecker are public officials and their salaries should not be compared to what Mr. Kennedy earns for running a corporation.

Better that Mr. Kennedy be compared with heads of companies like General Motors or Ford, who earn millions of dollars annually, officials say.

Next to those guys, Mr. Kennedy's salary seems paltry.

Of course, it doesn't seem paltry to me, particularly when you consider the size of Mr. Kennedy's "company."

But then, as I've already confessed, I haven't stepped through the looking glass.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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