10 vie for 6 council seats

CA's assessment rate, recent bickering at issue

Three incumbents uncontested

Residents also to vote for village boards


March 29, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Next month's race for the Columbia Council is shaping up to be among the most competitive in recent years, with 10 candidates contending for six open seats.

All six incumbents are vying to reclaim their seats on the advisory body for the planned community, and races are contested in three villages - Hickory Ridge, Harper's Choice and Town Center.

One candidate is running in each of three other villages. Incumbents Joshua Feldmark and Barbara Russell are unopposed in their quests to retain council seats from Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills, respectively.

Incumbent Pearl Atkinson-Stewart is also unchallenged and will be appointed to her Owen Brown seat. The village does not hold elections for uncontested races.

The representatives from Dorsey's Search, Kings Contrivance, River Hill and Long Reach are not up for re-election, as they will be entering the second year of their two-year terms.

The elections are scheduled for April 24, and Kings Contrivance residents can also vote on April 23. Residents will also elect representatives to their village boards, for which four villages - Hickory Ridge, Kings Contrivance, River Hill and Long Reach - have contested races.

Compared with last year's quiet council elections - which included only one challenged race - candidates this year are actively campaigning on such issues as CA's assessment rate and the council's recent bickering.

The 10-member council - whose members also act as the Columbia Association's board of directors - has become increasingly dysfunctional recently, disagreeing about how to address sharply-rising home assessment rates in the town.

CA's main source of revenue is from the association's annual charge, which is based on property assessments.

Home assessments in east Columbia increased by an average of 33.4 percent last year, generating an additional $2.7 million in revenue. West Columbia homes were also reassessed recently, jumping in value by an average of 47.4 percent.

For the fiscal 2005 budget, the board approved dropping the annual assessment rate a nickel, to 68 cents per $100 of valuation assessed on 50 percent of a property's value. The budget incorporated a 10 percent limit on assessment increases and a system that phases in the change of assessment.

However, the board disagrees on whether the limit and phase-in are contingent on state legislation proposed by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass that would impose a 10 percent limit on rising property assessments in Columbia as well as phase-in the change of assessment over three years. The association's covenants require the homeowners association to collect on a property's highest valuation each year.

The board is divided over its support for the bill. Some board members want the limit to be mandatory, and others want it to be voluntary. The House of Delegates unanimously passed the bill last week, and it is now before the Senate.

Council Chairman Miles Coffman, who is seeking his fifth one-year term as the Hickory Ridge council representative, maintains that Pendergrass' legislation should not mandate the limit and phase-in, but allow the homeowners association to govern its own affairs.

Coffman said he is running for re-election because he wants to continue focusing on CA's financial health, by controlling expenses and determining an appropriate level for the association's long-term $78 million debt.

Coffman, 54, said he wants to create a more positive atmosphere on the council, "to get us to focus on the issues and ... get away from the personal attacks."

This past term has been marked by continuous bickering among council members, some of whom have accused one another of inappropriately holding closed or secret meetings. One council member was accused by others of verbally abusing the staff.

Coffman, who has been chairman for the past two years, said if he is re-elected he does not want to serve in that role again. As chairman, he said, he is not as involved in discussions as he'd like to be - because he's trying to keep order and make sure all the council members have their say. His family is troubled that he's a frequent target of heated criticism, he said. "My wife, she's just tired of the personal attacks, and it's not based on the job I do," said Coffman, a vice president at M&T Bank.

Fred Franklin-Campbell, an adjunct history professor at Howard Community College, is challenging Coffman. Franklin-Campbell, 31, believes the council should operate in a more open atmosphere and says it holds too many inappropriately closed sessions.

He supports Pendergrass' legislation and says the council "dropped the ball" in dealing with rising assessments. "It's not like they can't afford to cut back or cap [the assessment]," he said, pointing to CA's projected $4.3 million surplus for 2005. "But they just haven't, and I think that Shane's bill forces them to take more responsibility."

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