Dealing with the Columbia Association's multimillion-dollar debt and improving relations among members of the Columbia Council were among the issues addressed last night as three candidates for the Harper's Choice seat fielded questions from prospective voters.
Incumbent Wolfger Schneider and challengers Kathleen Larson and Arna Clark fielded questions from an audience of 22 residents at Kahler Hall.
The two-year Harper's Choice seat is one of three contested races on the 10-member council in the April 24 election. Incumbents also face challengers in Town Center and Hickory Ridge.
Schneider, who is running for his second term, said he believes that Columbia is split into two factions - residents who use the association's recreational amenities, which include three gyms and 23 outdoor pools, and those who do not.
All property owners pay the Columbia Association an annual charge based on property value, and Schneider said he wants those who do not patronize the facilities to feel as though they are getting "the most bang for their buck" - explaining that one of the few benefits they have is use of the community's open space.
Larson, who identifies herself as a writer, said she does not understand why council members cannot be advocates for residents and the association. She said she is running out of fear that Alliance for a Better Columbia (ABC), a citizens watchdog group, might get a majority on the council and "destroy the Columbia I have come to love."
Schneider, a staff engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, has given financial support to the allliance.
Clark, a dishwasher and food preparer at Popeye's in The Mall in Columbia, said she wants to bring social change to Columbia and wants the association to sponsor a peace awareness festival. She identifies herself as a communist, but allowed: "I do need to do more research on the term communism."
The council - which also acts as the Columbia Association board of directors - has had contentious debates this year over how to address sharply rising home assessments. Assessments in east Columbia increased by an average 33.4 percent last year. West Columbia homes were also recently reassessed, jumping in value by an average 47.4 percent.
When questioned about how to deal with the council's heated relations, Clark, 32, said she thinks people "should work together and exchange ideas."
Larson, 62, said that when residents testify before the council with concerns, she would want to know the outcome they are seeking so she can help develop a solution.
Schneider, 63, said it is impossible to rid the council of discord, but that members should be able to reach a point where they do not need to have "secret meetings" to attack one another.
Audience members repeatedly asked the candidates how they planned to approach the association's $72.4 million long-term debt, which was accumulated in part by building neighborhood amenities before property tax-generating homes were developed to support them.
Larson said the association should keep paying off the debt at a steady rate, and Schneider said the association should have balanced cash flow.
Clark said the association should apply for state grants, or "maybe people can donate money to CA to get CA out of debt. ... Maybe that'll help."