Taking charge of Columbia Howard County: Silent majority must exert its strength on town's Election Day Saturday.

April 16, 1997

WHO RUNS COLUMBIA? Is it the Howard County Council, whose actions are binding from Jessup to Long Corner? The county executive, who commands the rudder of county government? How about the Rouse Co., architect of the admired planned community and its most influential landlord? The Columbia Association? Columbia Council? Village Boards?

This dizzying mix of authorities can make it difficult to figure out who's in charge. Perhaps this menagerie explains some of the apathy for Columbia Council elections every year. It certainly would be easy for residents to conclude that in the scheme of things, their votes for these local council members are meaningless. They might convince themselves that this is not a real election. And, they would be wrong.

The Columbia Council directed $49 million in spending for the next fiscal year. This is not an insignificant amount. Neither is the community's debt, at $90 million and growing. The owner of a $180,000 home pays an annual $657 lien to pay the community's debt service and to finance the Columbia Association budget that council members dice up for facilities, programs, equipment and maintenance.

The past year's No. 1 controversy demonstrated the Columbia Council's importance. Council members decided to build a $6.3 million athletic club in the new River Hill village and a $3.3 million ice rink-sports park in Harper's Choice. Construction of the athletic club raised the question of whether Columbia's recreational facilities should serve outsiders or primarily residents. As the 30-year-old planned community matures, a philosophical battle rages over whether the town should return to its original tenets or let the marketplace dictate.

Columbia's older village centers are showing wear. The problems are nothing that can't be fixed. Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills and Long Reach are fairly new by standards outside Columbia. But the broken windows can degenerate into suburban slums without proper care.

TTC The time for apathy in Columbia is over. Families settling in the town cannot leave all worries behind. There's a need for work to restore and maintain it. The work begins at the polls Saturday. And it begins with residents, who really run Columbia if they choose.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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