10 candidates seek Columbia Council seats

Home assessment rates, recent bickering at issue

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.

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 - they will be entering the second year of their two-year terms.

The elections are scheduled for April 24. 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 had 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.

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, 54, said 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.

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.

In Harper's Choice, two challengers are facing incumbent Wolfger Schneider, 63, who is running for his second two-year term on the council. A professional staff engineer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Schneider said he wants to continue advocating for residents who do not buy memberships to most of the town's recreational facilities.

One of Schneider's challengers, Kathleen Larson, 61, said she wants to "help bring calm" to the council. "I'm a problem-solver," said Larson, a writer. "And I think that's my strongest point, finding a way to broker solutions."

Arna Clark, a dishwasher and food preparer at Popeyes in The Mall in Columbia, is also running for the Harper's Choice seat. Clark, 32, said she'd like to create a Woodstock-type festival in Columbia and offer cooking or dancing classes for low-income families.

In Town Center, Donna Rice is seeking her third two-year term on the council. She has been chairwoman of the council's policy committee for the past two years and wants to continue examining the council's policies as well as advocating for Town Center.

"My concern has always been for not just the community at large, but also the heart of the city, which is Town Center," said Rice, 58.

Jud Malone, who operates an Internet portal hosting service from home, is challenging Rice because he said he believes she is not "representing the true interests of Town Center."

While addressing the assessment issue, Malone, 53, said the council "squabbled and bickered over a solution instead of taking some active measures, constructive measures."

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