Fixing what's broken in Columbia Audit: Independent review verifies news articles on need to tighten procedures.

December 15, 1997

AN AUDIT of the Columbia Association's purchasing practices verifies many of the findings of an investigation by The Sun last spring. Although the association tightened some of its procedures shortly after the stories were published, the review advises there is more to do.

The three-month audit by Raffa & Associates of Washington found sloppiness in the way goods and services were bought by the quasi-governmental organization that manages Howard County's planned city. Among the problems discovered: Missing documents and confusion by officials about whether they should learn vendor charges from catalogs, recent invoices, price lists or quotes over the telephone.

Columbia isn't your typical town, created from scratch by James Rouse three decades ago as an experiment in suburban planning. Neither is the Columbia Association your typical government. But revelations about its problems may even resonate with non-Columbians: The planned city would be the second-largest in Maryland if incorporated. Also, homeowner associations are increasingly handling maintenance and recreation for new subdivisions everywhere, albeit on a more amateur scale than the $49 million Columbia Association.

A typical problem found by this newspaper and reviewed by auditors was a $5,650 contract for passageways at the Columbia Athletic Club. MATCO Masonry Contractors won the award in a three-way bid. But MATCO's original proposal was $6,450, only the second-lowest. The company was allowed to change its price, something a competitor told auditors that his company was not given an opportunity to do.

Auditors did not conclude that anyone improperly benefited from the practices, although their review did not delve far into that area.

To his credit, CA President Padraic M. Kennedy, who is retiring after 26 years, implemented changes after news reports first appeared. Auditors report that the new policies are being followed consistently. The audit recommends other changes, including hiring a purchasing agent, using sealed bids for large purchases and a purchasing card for small purchases. Adopting some of the auditors' recommendations can make CA operate more efficiently and restore confidence to homeowners who pay substantially for its services.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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