Sister Cities a budget issue

Exchange program with France, Spain, could face cuts

September 23, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Visitors to a French town just outside Paris can stroll through a plaza named Square Columbia, dine at Le Columbia Cafe Brasserie and even dig into a Columbia sandwich.

In a Spanish town on the outskirts of Madrid, there's an elementary school named for the Howard County town.

Those overseas honors grew out of the Columbia Association's Sister Cities affiliation with Cergy-Pontoise, France, and Tres Cantos in Spain.

Supporters say there are less tangible but far more important benefits to the $81,000-a-year program, from sharper language skills and greater cultural awareness to potential business ties.

"The whole philosophy is to create a grass-roots citizens diplomacy project," said Zenoby Orsten, the Columbia Association's Sister Cities program manager.

"It's not just, `Oh, well. You're paying for someone to have a cheap exchange abroad,'" she said. "It's something that enriches the whole community."

The program is expected to face extra scrutiny this year as the Columbia Council looks for ways to trim its $44 million annual operating budget. Some council members have expressed a desire to reorient the Columbia Association (CA) to its core duties as a homeowners association.

Columbia, after all, isn't technically a city. The unincorporated town of 88,000 is governed by the homeowners association.

Some residents are expected to speak out against Sister Cities at what is being billed as a "prebudget" hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at CA headquarters. CA provides $66,000 of the program's $81,000 annual budget, with the rest coming from grants and fees from participants.

"There are quite a few people who would like to see it transferred to the county or to a private nonprofit organization," said Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a residents watchdog group.

"If it was a unique activity, that would be one thing - but there are a lot of exchange programs out there," he said. "We're nearing build-out, our income is flattening out. We need to pare back expenses and this is one of quite a few areas in the CA budget where we could do that."

Yet Sister Cities can count on heightened support from its backers because next year is the 25th anniversary of its association with Cergy-Pontoise. Council Chairman Lanny Morrison has expressed a desire to increase spending on the program by an unspecified amount to mark the anniversary.

Supporters also say the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 demonstrate the need for this kind of program, which builds ties between countries and across cultures.

"This is a really important time that we reach out to the rest of the world and maintain contacts," said Larry Schoen of Wilde Lake, a member of CA's Sister Cities advisory committee.

During the summer, 11 Columbia high school students traveled to Cergy-Pontoise and 19 went to Tres Cantos for about two weeks. The students pay their airfare and stay in private homes while overseas. A total of 31 Spanish and French students visited Columbia, staying in students' homes. The Columbia Association pays the airfare for two to four chaperones to accompany the students overseas each year, depending on the number of students participating.

Thomas Morrison, a Long Reach High School junior, spent 2 1/2 weeks in Tres Cantos through the program in June last year.

It was his first trip overseas and his first extended stay away from home. In addition to improving his language skills, the program gave him a look at a very different lifestyle: an urban apartment setting where teens have little access to cars, where 20-minute showers are considered obscenely long, where laundry is hung out to dry, where kids stay out late and grab a siesta in the middle of the day.

"It kind of opened my eyes to a whole different culture and gave me a new outlook on kind of the way I live my life vs. a more laid-back setting," said Morrison, 16. "I prefer the Spanish kind of way of life where you have the ability to walk just across the street and meet up with a whole group of friends and stay out until 2, 3 o'clock in the morning."

In addition to the annual high school exchanges, CA has organized business, athletic and arts exchanges.

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