The two candidates for the Hickory Ridge seat on the Columbia Council debated last night about the appropriate use of the Columbia Association's monetary assets and whether revenue that remains after operating expenses constitutes a surplus.
Incumbent Miles Coffman, who is the council chairman, told the 15 people attending the debate at Hawthorn Center that it is a common misperception that the homeowners association has a cash surplus.
The Columbia Association plans to have $4.3 million left over after operating expenses in the $50.5 million operating budget for fiscal year 2005, which begins May 1. But Coff- man said that money is "a surplus in name only."
A vice president at M&T Bank, Coffman said the association needs money to fund capital projects as well as pay down its $72.4 million long-term debt.
"There's a surplus, but it's an increase in net assets," said Coffman, who is seeking his fifth one-year term as the village's council representative. "It's not a cash flow."
Coffman's challenger, Fred Franklin-Campbell, an adjunct history professor at Howard Community College, disagreed. He said the money is indeed a surplus, and should be "in the pockets of residents."
"Certainly there is a surplus" said Franklin-Campbell, 31. "It's a legal surplus."
Coffman and Franklin-Campbell are competing in one of three contested council races in Saturday's election. Seats are also contested in Harper's Choice and Town Center.
Coffman, 54, said he wants to focus on controlling the association's expenses and long-term debt. The association has retired $12.5 million in debt since he has been on the council, and it should determine an appropriate debt level, he said. "We will bring together some experts and have a discussion -- what is the right level of debt?" he said.
If elected, Franklin-Campbell said he would look into the council operating in a more open atmosphere. Earlier this year, four council members accused others of abusing the group's ability to meet in closed sessions. Coffman has maintained that the council complies with the state Homeowners Association Act's guidelines for closed meetings.
In responding to a question about the number of council or village board meetings he has attended, Franklin-Campbell told the audience that he has gone to none because he didn't want to take the seat with any "preconceived notions." He said, however, that he has read the minutes of each council meeting for the past two years.
Coffman said he has missed only a few meetings. "I think that's much better than reading minutes," he said.
The candidates also disagreed on how the 10-member council -- acting as the Columbia Association board -- handled Columbia's recent sharply rising home assessments.
The association imposes an annual charge on homeowners based on property values, and the board has lowered the annual rate by 5 cents, to 68 cents per $100 of assessed value, on 50 percent of a home's worth. The 2005 budget also included a 10 percent assessment cap.
Franklin-Campbell supported state legislation -- which the 2004 General Assembly approved -- that would impose a 10 percent cap on the impact of property assessments in the calculation of the annual charge.
Coffman had wanted the legislation to be voluntary.