Barking loudly as CA watchdog is alliance's goal

Critics say ABC focuses too much on negatives

March 21, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

For years the Alliance for a Better Columbia has been the Columbia Council's most keen watchdog and critic.

Members of this citizens group routinely testify before the council, presenting myriad pleas: Drop the Columbia Association's annual charge rate, balance the budget and distribute more information to the community.

In the spirit of Columbia's history of grass-roots activism, the alliance, known as ABC, has acquired a reputation of challenging the views of the council majority and homeowners association staff. The only independent citizens group in the planned community, ABC has gained momentum this year after Columbia's home assessments skyrocketed, causing a public outcry.

"I think our success is due to the fact that we do reflect the grass-roots sentiment in Columbia on a lot of issues," said Alex Hekimian, a transportation planner for Montgomery County who is the group's president and a founding member.

But critics argue ABC focuses on the negative and is harmful to the community. Joan Lancos, a former council member, worries the group's influences could eventually lead to the demise of Columbia.

"The services and facilities, all the little special things about Columbia are going to be gone because the Alliance for a Better Columbia will have taken over and wiped away everything that's important," she said.

A group assessment

Since the summer, at least one ABC member has typically been testifying before the council, often asking the group to lower the annual charge imposed on property owners - which is based on assessment value - and rebate the money the higher rates reaped.

East Columbia's homes jumped an average 33.4 percent last year, which led to an additional $2.7 million in assessment revenue. West Columbia homes were recently reassessed, skyrocketing an average 47.4 percent in value.

The issue attracted Joel Pearlman to join ABC. He was shocked that his Kings Contrivance home increased in assessed value by more than 50 percent.

"I also felt powerless because I just felt the citizens didn't have any control over the association," said Pearlman, a telecommunications lawyer who has become one of the group's primary spokesmen, testifying at most council meetings.

Resident complaints about CA's annual charge prompted Del. Shane E. Pendergrass to draft legislation that would impose a 10 percent cap on rising property assessments in Columbia. CA's covenants require the association to collect on a property's highest valuation. The House of Delegates unanimously approved the bill Friday.

ABC - which Hekimian calls an "advocacy group" - was founded in 1987 when residents frustrated with CA's operations came together to present a different viewpoint from those expressed by the majority on the 10-member council, which acts as the CA's board of directors. ABC was incorporated two years later as a nonprofit.

"There are so few checks and balances under our governing system," Hekimian said. "The CA board of directors is the legislative, judicial and executive branch all rolled into one. If they decide to do something, they're the ones who interpret whether it's the correct thing to do or not."

The issues-oriented group has about 400 people on its mailing list, but only about 60 families financially sustain the organization, Hekimian said.

Critics maintain that ABC is only a small special interest organization that doesn't represent the majority of Columbia's 96,000 residents.

"They represent themselves," said Neil Dorsey, chairman of the Owen Brown Village Board, adding that his board received e-mails from only three residents who were upset about assessment increases. "A lot of [ABC's] complaints seem to be irrelevant."

ABC has pushed for a number of causes over the years: one vote for each adult in Columbia during community elections (voting varies by village, with some only allowing one vote per property); making CA's 23 outdoor pools free for residents or charging a nominal cost (a new family membership costs $273); and eliminating CA's operating surpluses (the association expects a $4.3 million surplus for 2005).

ABC's stances have drawn much ire from disagreeing council members and residents. Pendergrass' bill has been an especially sore spot. Critics claim ABC is the powerhouse behind the bill and worry that the legislation could lead to the downfall of the association.

Hekimian said while ABC supported Pendergrass' bill, the group doesn't take credit for the bill or its success.

"I think it's just overdone that ABC is the source of everything because it isn't," he said. "I think too many people think that any time anyone has views different from CA staff or council, that person automatically belongs to ABC. That's not true."

Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, said the driving force behind her bill was "constituents coming up to me in the grocery store, etc." ABC was helpful in organizing some of its members to testify in support of the bill, she said.

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