Dorsey's Search for missing money Howard County: Columbia Association's lax oversight of village partly to blame.

March 16, 1998

COLUMBIA RESIDENTS should be troubled by the possible theft at the Dorsey's Search Village Center that police and prosecutors are investigating.

In an article last week by Sun reporters Dana Hedgpeth and Caitlin Francke, sources said a preliminary audit shows that someone may have pilfered $100,000 from the village over the years from an operation that collects and spends about $265,000 annually.

The Dorsey's Search center and other village centers are not large outfits, but they are not mom-and-pop operations, either. The Columbia Association distributes about $2 million to the planned community's 10 village centers. This is too much money; CA must not allow it to go unaccounted for.

Yet it has been years since CA has required audits for Dorsey's Search and other villages.

Managers of these neighborhood focal points submit financial statements to headquarters, but these reports are not the same as audits, which are needed periodically to verify receipts.

It always is difficult to determine what the standard should be for the Columbia Association, a quasi-governmental organization that manages recreation in the unincorporated town of 85,000 residents. But it is disturbing that the association seems to prefer lenient rather than strict standards for monitoring money it collects from property owners and those who use its facilities.

A Sun report last year on the community's ragged bidding procedures and practices uncovered other examples of poor CA oversight that prompted an auditor to call for tighter controls.

More recently, the association discovered that money was missing from Dorsey's Search, which Anne Darrin managed for 10 years until she resigned Feb. 27.

CA should have taken a cue from county government, which distributes hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to its volunteer fire departments but requires audits every year.

CA is finally getting around to auditing all its village centers. Unfortunately, it took a possible theft to prompt the association to take this action.

The community must be assured that money -- its money -- to operate CA and the village centers is in safe hands.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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