Columbia system works, Rouse says

January 22, 1995

Dear Martin,

At our meeting on the "Diane Rehm [radio] show," I am afraid we gave off more heat than light. We, and the community, have a right to expect better of us than that.

Despite what may have been said in the "heat," I respect you as a fine man, a good citizen of Columbia and an important leader in our community.

You are right in advocating one person, one vote. The Columbia Association supports it and contributes to the village boards toward the cost of petition campaigns to change the covenants.

As to incorporation, let me make a few points that I hope you will think about.

The governance of Columbia is not primarily the Columbia Association. It begins with the government of Howard County. It is there the basic powers of government exist: the schools, courts, police, jails, planning, zoning, public utilities, roads, and other functions of service, support and control.

These are the true "powers" of government. They are carried out by a traditional system of legislation (the County Council) and executive administration (the county executive and administrative departments). Howard County performs these governmental functions efficiently, economically and with a minimum of partisan political controversy.

The Howard County government is the true government for Columbia -- and a good one.

At the early stages of planning for Columbia, the Rouse Co. considered incorporating a new town. It was decided not to do so because Howard County government was competent and efficient. Also, it was important for Columbia to be part of Howard County, not divided from it. It was probable that the population of Columbia and the rest of the county might be very different -- culturally and ethnically. Columbians would have much to gain from community association with the rest of the county and the rest of the county would have much to gain from similar association with Columbians. This has been a very constructive relationship.

But Howard County government could not provide the higher level of amenities that would be required in Columbia to fulfill the goals that were set for the community. The Columbia Association was created to provide those amenities, to be paid for by the users -- the Columbia residents.

Thus, the Columbia Association was created without the powers of government but to provide the extra amenities that Columbia knows and cherishes:

* 5,000 acres of open space (3,000 now in operation).

* Lakes with sailing, fishing and wildlife attractions.

* 24 swimming pools (There were none in Howard County at the time Columbia opened.)

* 48 tennis courts, one golf course and a second soon to open, ice skating, indoor swimming, squash, racquetball, etc.

* Village centers in each village with meeting rooms, theater space and a variety of programs as determined by the individual villages, and neighborhood centers and small parks in each village.

* Public transportation between village center and town centers, particularly for older people and younger people.

* Community programs of all kinds from summer camps to senior citizen facilities and much more.

It is doubtful that any town or city of 80,000 population has such a spread of community amenities as Columbia provides.

In addition to the Columbia Association with its amenities, village boards were provided in each of 10 villages as structured opportunities for people to gather, form interest groups, generate advocacy or opposition on issues and to send a member to management of the Columbia Association.

It was then, and is now, a unique system that has been widely applauded and works well for the people of Columbia.

The basic assessment (or tax?) is capped at 75 cents and now operates at 73 cents. Also, the initial debt of $24 million to create the early amenities has been reduced from to $12 million over the past 10 years and will be wiped out entirely in another six years at the current rate of reduction.

The cost of operating the amenities is largely paid for by the users under a system that provides discounts of up to 75 percent based on income. It provides further for people of modest income to be able to earn full membership without charge.

The admission prices at the various facilities are considerably below the price at private facilities operated for profit.

The Columbia Association has operated within budget every year since 1985, with a surplus -- applied to debt -- every year since 1986. This generally would be considered strong evidence of good, efficient community operation.

As to public participation, there are more than 2 million visitations to the Columbia facilities that charge admission and 40 percent of Columbia residents belong to the "Package Plan" for recreation facilities.

Looked at in terms of governance -- Howard County for traditional governmental powers and services, the Columbia Association for extra amenities and the village boards for a system of effective advocacy -- the Columbia system works out to be a very good one.

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