CA should focus spending narrowly
Once again, the civic leaders of Howard County have asked the Columbia Association to provide funds for what should be a county-wide issue - the preservation of slave quarters. More disconcerting is the fact that the Columbia Association Board of Directors is likely to approve funds to preserve the property.
The Columbia Association is neither a government nor a charitable foundation. It is a homeowners' association, albeit a relatively affluent one. More than half of its revenues are generated by assessments on all of the property owners of Columbia. The average property owner pays several hundred dollars each year merely for the privilege of owning property in Columbia. The only services received for these assessments are the services available to non-property owners, i.e., use of Columbia's open space.
Time and again, the county government and civic leaders look to the Association for funds. And the Directors elected by Columbia property owners regularly agree to subsidize county and civic activities with assessments paid by Columbia property owners. To name but a few, the Columbia Association hosts the Howard County Volunteer Center and the First Tee golf program, contributes $100,000 each year to the Columbia Foundation and $20,000 to the Howard County Economic Development Corporation, and has paid for Maggie Brown's participation in the recent Howard County Economic Development trip to foreign countries. As a result, the residents of Columbia subsidize the rest of Howard County through the assessment paid to the Columbia Association.
Despite the adverse public reaction resulting from the astronomical increase in assessments, the Directors have moved at a glacial pace in providing any relief to the property owners who elected them. The Directors' receptiveness to the plea for preservation of the slave quarters reveals the reason for the delay - the Directors want to use other people's (the property owners') money to curry favor with the political and civic leaders. If the Directors believe preservation is a worthy goal, there are alternatives to taxing Columbia residents to achieve the goal. The Directors could solicit private charitable organizations (such as Preservation Howard County) or governmental organizations, or the Directors could start their own charitable organization and contribute their own money.
The Columbia Association should not be the pocketbook for projects that benefit the entire county nor should Columbia property owners be taxed so that the Board of Directors and staff of the Columbia Association can enhance their stature with political and civic leaders.
Perks of Columbia come at a price
Over the last several months the Columbia Association has heard concerns from residents regarding how increasing property values have led to increases in the CA annual charge.
During that period the Columbia Association Senior Team and the Columbia Association Board of Directors have not only been listening, but also analyzing the many issues involved. Doing this analysis was our responsibility to current residents, (many of whom have lived here for many, many years), to future generations and to CA's bond holders.
After reviewing all of the issues, the Columbia Association Board directed the CA Senior Team to prepare next year's budget to reflect a 10-cent reduction in the annual charge rate. Also as the result of a recent IRS ruling, requested by CA in June, the Columbia Association Board is now debating offering rebates, and/or credits to those who pay the annual charge.
The 10-cent reduction gives significant relief to residents and keeps CA on track to reduce its long-term debt and to maintain the quality of services that Columbians appreciated and expect.
Columbia is such a terrific place, mostly because of the amenities provided by your annual charge. The Columbia Board of Directors needs to be sure that whatever decision it makes will not impact CA's ability to maintain the services that have made Columbia so special or negatively affect our bond rating.
Among the things that make Columbia most special is its abundance of natural beauty.
Jim Rouse, Columbia's visionary founder, believed that man is ennobled by nature, and attempted to create a city of natural beauty where the land is respected. You don't have to go far from your home to take pleasure in that beauty. However, that beauty comes at a price - $11.5 million to be exact. Maintaining the pathways, parks, lakes, ponds and the flowers accounts for 44 percent of your assessment dollar.
Another important part of Columbia's vision is to foster citizenship and to build community. We hope that you have taken a class, or enjoyed a free program at your Community Center, read the newsletter of Village events that comes to you each month, voted in an election, or taken a problem to your Village Board. One of the reasons that Columbia has aged so well are the architectural standards enforced throughout our city by Village covenant advisors. The Community Centers/Associations are funded in the amount of $4.6 million (18 percent of your assessment dollar) so that they can provide these and other programs and services.
Promoting community by providing recreational services at significantly below market rates is also part of the Columbia Vision. Annual competitive market surveys of comparable facilities show that Columbians pay about 50 percent less for membership in CA's pools and facilities. Furthermore, it is an important part of CA's heritage to make facilities, services and programs even more accessible to those in need and to seniors. To provide all of this requires a subsidy of 9 percent of assessment income ($2.3 million).
Finally, there is CA's long-term debt. Because the parks, pathways and facilities were built before there were enough residents to support them, CA generated quite a bit of debt in its early years. Over the years residents have reaped the benefits of the quality of life that these funds were used to provide. They have also reaped the benefits in terms of increasing property values. I wish it were possible to reap benefits without ever paying the cost, but it is not. Reducing debt and the reinvestment in our facilities accounts for 17 percent of your assessment dollar ($4.4 million).
Keeping Columbia on track to reduce its debt will have positive long-term benefits for both current residents and their children, while at the same time maintaining the quality of life that makes our community so special.
CA intends to continue to make good on the promises that were made 36 years ago to the community. The quality of life that we enjoy speaks to that. The past two years of creating Columbia's Strategic Plan for the next 30 years reconfirmed CA's direction. Together, we can make sure that this quality is continued for ourselves and for future generations of Columbians. I urge you to be actively involved in the upcoming budget process. All of the work sessions, hearings and Board discussions are open to the public. Your input is essential to the process and plays a vital role in the Board's final decisions.
Maggie J. Brown