Columbians in poll back more user fees for outsiders 20% of residences respond to survey

November 22, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

They want non-residents to pay higher fees to use Columbia recreation facilities. They think their annual property assessments are too high, but they aren't sure whether they want to continue paying for programs such as a sister-city student exchange.

Those are just some of the opinions found in a survey conducted by the Columbia Council. The survey was mailed by the Columbia Association, the non-profit organization that operates Columbia's facilities and programs, to every residence in Columbia the first week of September.

"We're not seeing anything in the survey that wasn't expected," said Pam Mack, the Columbia Association's vice president for community relations.

The survey, written by the Columbia Council's communications committee, asked residents their views on seven topics. The survey, which cost about $18,000, including a consultant's fee, will be used to help the council with long-range planning.

Of the 28,000 surveys mailed, about 20 percent or 5,799, were returned. About 93 percent of the respondents said that they own their homes and about 71 percent said they work in Columbia. Not all of those responding answered all questions.

While the response rate was not considered uncommon for a mass-mailed survey, the results should not be considered an accurate picture of the wishes of a majority of Columbia residents, cautioned consultant Bohne Silber.

In a preface to the survey results, Ms. Silber wrote, "The rate of return makes a word of caution necessary. The people who took the time to participate in the survey are probably individuals who have the greatest concern for or interest in the subject matter, and their opinions, though important, may not perfectly represent the opinion of the population as a whole."

For that reason the Columbia Association doesn't expect to make any suggestions for major program or policy changes, said Ms. Mack.

The Columbia Council, however, is considering some changes, including increasing fees for non-Columbia residents who use community pools, athletic clubs and the Hobbit's Glen Golf Course.

A majority of the survey respondents -- 63 percent -- answered that they believe "very strongly" that non-residents of Columbia should pay higher fees for memberships in Columbia-operated recreational facilities, even if the rate increase would cause some members to drop out.

Almost 68 percent of the respondents said they definitely would not be willing to pay higher fees to make up for lost revenue if non-residents were barred from becoming members at Columbia-operated facilities.

In another proposed change, the council also has instructed the Columbia Association staff to devise a plan to limit several of the 21 neighborhood pools to specific age groups, such as teen-agers or adults. As an alternative to closing unprofitable pools, Columbia Association President Padraic Kennedy suggested testing the idea at pools where use is lagging.

The idea to target some pools to specific age groups is not new, but was given new impetus from the survey, said Ms. Mack.

About 69 percent of the survey respondents said they use the community pools, and about 62 percent said they strongly support funding the pools.

Respondents were split about evenly on whether they thought pools with low usage should be closed, 43 percent favored closing them, while about 40 percent said they shouldn't. About 17 percent said they weren't sure. However, about 78 percent said they favored looking into other ways to improve membership at underused pools.

The other issues dealt with in the survey were overcrowding at Columbia facilities and construction and repair of Columbia's system of neighborhood pathways, used for jogging, biking and walking.

A majority of respondents did not like any of four suggested remedies for crowding: excluding new members, barring all non-Columbians from facilities, establishing membership limits at facilities, and building new facilities.

On the issue of pathways, residents were asked if they favored slowing construction and repair of pathways to spread the cost out over several years. About 56 percent favored the idea, while about 32 percent opposed it.

A combined 75 percent of respondents said they thought that Columbia's annual property assessment they pay the association is either "much too high" or "a little high."

The property assessment, 73 cents per $100 of assessed value, is not tax deductible because Columbia is unincorporated. The assessment is Columbia's main source of revenue, generating a projected $17.2 million in fiscal year 1993.

The second major source of Columbia Association revenue comes from recreational membership fees. Membership and community program fees and sales at pro shops will generate an estimated $14.4 million in 1993.

A combined 58 percent of the survey respondents said membership fees are either "much too high" or "a little high."

The survey found that a majority of respondents did not favor continuing programs they're unfamiliar with, such as the community's volunteer corps and the student effort exchange program. The survey also asked residents about their knowledge of the Columbia Association's community-wide programs, such as its management of open space areas and the Sister City program, a student exchange effort with cities in Europe.

Ms. Mack said the communications committee is considering trying to heighten awareness of those programs before suggesting they be cut from the budget.

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