Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty delivered a state of Columbia speech last week to the Columbia Business Exchange, a business networking group. Following are excerpts.

I am very pleased to report to you that the financial state of the Columbia Association is strong. Last summer, we aggressively pursued and successfully achieved a bond rating upgrade to double "A" from two New York rating agencies, Fitch and Moody's, which was, in one case, a rare two-step upgrade.

Columbia's assessable tax base for the budget year 2001 is projected to be $5,685,421,643. This represents 66 percent of Howard County's projected FY 2001 base. That is an amazing statistic. Columbia is one-third of the population of the county, but it is two-thirds of the county's assessable base. Think about the significant contribution Columbia makes to Howard County's prosperity.

There were two key ingredients in building the Columbia Association's strong financial health over the years. The first was the internal fiscal discipline established by the board of directors. From FY 1980 until FY 1985, the goal was achieving a balanced budget. From FY 1988 through FY 2000, it was the elimination of the accumulated deficit that resulted from the very early years of pre-servicing Columbia. The pre-servicing concept, which was part of the economic plan of Columbia, called for building the facilities and amenities before the community was in place to support them. In CA's FY 2001 budget, and in the years ahead, the guiding principle is the achievement of lower debt to revenue ratios.

A second key ingredient of CA's financial success has been the strong economy of Columbia as a whole. There are more than 2,900 businesses located in Columbia, occupying over 24.7 million square feet of space. There are more than 500 stores and restaurants occupying more than 4.2 million square feet of retail/commercial space.

One just has to look at the new Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom expansions at the mall, and the east side's retail eruption with Columbia Crossing and the very busy Snowden Square to see Columbia's retail boom. In 1999, approximately 66,500 people were employed here. In fact, today there are almost twice as many jobs in Columbia as there are Columbians who leave the county to work elsewhere.

More Than Statistics There are 32,629 dwelling units in Columbia, and the average household is estimated at 2.6 occupants. Thirty-six percent of the dwelling units are single-family detached, 26 percent are town houses, 13 percent are condominiums and 25 percent were built to be rental apartments or town houses. The average household income is $79,300. Seventy percent of the city's adults have a college degree, while more than one-third have postgraduate degrees.

It is Columbia Association's goal to serve the people who live and work in Columbia. In keeping with its mission, CA provides a wide range of cultural, recreational and community service programs and facilities. Approximately 42 percent of all Columbia households own a membership in one or more of the facilities.

But CA is more than sports and fitness. CA also operates a broad range of community service programs, which includes 22 before- and after-school care programs, an after-school program at three area middle schools called E.N.E.R.G.Y., 23 different summer camps, two teen centers, Midnight Basketball and exchange programs with Columbia's sister cities in France and Spain.

And, of course, there is the open space, which is a tremendous source of pride and enjoyment to the community. CA currently owns and maintains more than 3,100 acres of open space, approximately 83 miles of pedestrian pathways, the 40-acre Symphony Woods park and other facilities.

Taken together this is an incredible array of facilities and services. They are the reason that Columbia is so attractive to the large number of businesses and their employees who choose to locate here.

An important goal of Columbia was to build a community that included all socioeconomic levels. To ensure that all Columbians have access to CA's programs, discounts are offered on outdoor pool memberships and before- and after-[school] care programs and camps. In addition, CA's "Earn-A-Membership" program enables income-qualified residents to earn memberships by working in CA facilities.

Budgeting for Challenges Columbia is a wonderful community with committed residents, but no community is without challenge and CA faces a number of them in the years ahead.

One, most certainly, is how to sustain the current level of excellence without the benefit of new growth. Columbia is reaching build-out. Residential development is more than 90 percent complete, and commercial, and industrial development is close to 80 percent complete. What that means is a flattening of revenues.

This year's proposed budget projects slightly more than $45 million in income--55 percent of that comes from programs and services, and 45 percent from the annual assessment on residences and businesses. Expenses are projected to be $44 million, resulting in a positive bottom line of $1.3 million. The FY 2001 capital budget totals $4.8 million, the lowest CA capital budget in four years.

During the past year, the Columbia Association opened a new skateboard park in Harper's Choice; CA's last community center, Claret Hall, in River Hill; and a new fitness club, the Columbia Gym, also in River Hill. Though we are concerned about greater than anticipated expenses at the gym and we are focused on bringing those expenses in line, that concern is accompanied by tremendous usage at the gym, with a particularly high demand for increased children's programs as well as an increase in package plan memberships.

In order to meet the recently established debt/revenue ratios, the proposed capital budget and operating budgets are basically continuation budgets that hold the line on new spending. There are funds this year, however, for the reinvestment in our facilities, our computers and telecommunications system and our employees.

A second challenge is the current job market. With the county at close to zero unemployment levels, it gets more and more difficult to attract the part-time worker who is so important to the operation of CA facilities and programs. We have recently begun incentive programs to attract new employees and to encourage our current employees to assist us.

A third challenge is the aging of Columbia--both its infrastructure and its people. During the first 25 years of Columbia's development, the emphasis has been on building new facilities and amenities. We are currently at the point where we are shifting to the reinvestment in existing amenities. If Columbia is to remain the success that it is, significant emphasis must be placed on keeping the facilities and amenities in the best possible condition. CA has done this not only with regular repair and maintenance but also by including substantial upgrades in our renovation projects.

At the same time, the aging of residential units has resulted in the call for stronger covenant enforcement of maintenance covenants. The CA Board's Design and Covenant Committee is bringing forward several initiatives in this budget process in response to that need.

Buildings, however, are not the only challenge of aging. One of the fastest growing populations in Columbia is the over-65 group. To ensure that the needs of this population are met, the CA Board of Directors created a Senior Advisory Committee, which will fashion recommendations to the CA board to address any unmet needs.

Staying Committed Columbia in the year 2000 has matured into a vibrant new city. We have a strong commercial and industrial base, we have a culturally diverse population and housing of all types and price ranges. We have theater, a thriving arts community and an amazing portfolio of recreation. We have a first-rate hospital that is part of the Johns Hopkins system, and we have outstanding higher education opportunities through the community college, Loyola College and Johns Hopkins University. Howard County has one of the best school systems in the state of Maryland.

As Columbia nears completion, its biggest challenge is no longer how to keep pace with growth; rather the challenge is to keep the community committed to its original goals, to keep its enthusiasm ignited and its problem solving skills focused on community issues, as well as how to engage all the new people who are coming.