Columbia Council was reluctant to make cuts to offset spending

March 06, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Columbia Councilman David Berson didn't think he was asking for the moon.

He wanted the council to offset a last-minute $20,000 addition to the Columbia Association budget by ordering association managers to cut an equivalent amount from some other part of the 1994-1995 spending plan.

The 10-member council had agreed to such a guideline to offset the $50,500 it planned to add in new services to the proposed budget -- amounting to less than one-quarter of 1 percent of CA's total operating expenses.

But the final proposed addition -- a $20,000 grant for a Wilde Lake High School performing arts center -- broke the council's resolve to require cuts to compensate for new expenditures.

Mr. Berson, River Hill village's representative, said he was disappointed the council hadn't done more to hold the line on spending by ordering division chiefs of the nonprofit association to save money through greater efficiency without diminishing services.

"And what I was proposing wasn't that much more," said Mr. Berson, an economist at the Federal National Mortgage Association. "I thought it was a tiny amount, and we couldn't even do that."

The council decision to refuse more cuts illustrates a budget process that has pitted advocates of tighter spending control of the association with traditionalists who are reluctant to tinker.

Council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker said she wasn't confident the association could absorb another $20,000 reduction in addition to the $30,500 in cuts already ordered.

A majority of the council balked at several attempts to order reductions, partly because scheduling allowed too little time to evaluate the proposed changes.

The volunteer board's first work session took place less than two weeks before the adoption Tuesday of the $31.8 million operating and $5.8 million capital budgets prepared by the association for 1994-1995.

"The problem is that so much of the budget process is done at the last minute. We really need to start earlier," Mr. Berson said. "Some members couldn't support [spending cuts] because the impacts were unclear. Unfortunately it was too late in the process to see what the impacts would be."

Councilman Mike Rethman, whose proposals to reduce association salary raises and the annual grant to Columbia's 10 villages were rejected, said the time crunch was a factor in the council's "reticence" to explore proposed cuts and other management issues.

"When someone comes in with something new, the inertia is with the status quo," said the Hickory Ridge village representative. "There's the feeling that there's not time to do it and a tendency to default to the proposed budget."

However, Councilwoman Hope Sachwald of Harper's Choice village said council members reviewed the proposed budget for countless hours, meeting in smaller groups, consulting association managers and visiting facilities before the work sessions began.

By the time deliberations started, many of her questions about expenditures had been answered, Ms. Sachwald said.

Councilman Chuck Rees of Kings Contrivance village said "some big failures" are apparent in the budget process. The council needs to do much more planning in advance, set parameters on large expenditures such as salaries and village grants, and develop overall "spending affordability limits," he said.

Ms. Kuecker said the council sets policy in advance by giving the association directives to follow in preparing the budget. But Mr. Rees contends that the directives amounted to little more than a few requests to analyze changes in recreational facility rates.

"We had almost no input into the proposed budget, and not many changes were made Tuesday night," said Mr. Rees. "It's really [the] staff's budget except for a few changes."

He recommended that the council take a more active role by requiring association managers to justify capital expenditures and certain increases in the operating budget months in advance.

Mr. Rethman said the board asserted its will when it deferred spending $98,000 to repair the Harper's Farm Road pedestrian overpass, a structure that possibly should be torn down instead.

"It showed that just because something's there and has always been done in the past, it doesn't mean we have to do it forever. That was an important psychological movement," Mr. Rethman said.

The elected council serves as the board of directors for the association, which charges Columbia property owners 73 cents per $100 of assessed property value to manage the unincorporated city's recreational facilities, community programs and open space areas.

About $17.7 million, or more than 50 percent of the association's income, will come from property assessments, and most of the rest will be from fees charged to users of programs and facilities.

Several council members objected to proposals to cut large amounts from line-items, such as supplies, or from the overall budget, saying that the requests came too late and were too open-ended.

"To me, that's pulling a number out of a hat," said Ms. Sachwald. "It's not good policy. It has to be more specific."

However, the budget isn't broken down in enough detail to order specific cuts, she acknowledged, adding that she intends to take that issue up with association President Padraic Kennedy.

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