Residents see budget as too fat

January 31, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Tonight's hearing on the Columbia Association's proposed 1995-1996 budget may boil down to a clash between residents who want spending reductions and some Columbia Council members who say the organization already runs a tight ship.

Wilde Lake village resident John F. Baker, concerned about escalating costs, says he wants the budget of the Columbia Association (CA) to reflect a leaner, more efficient operation and has suggested a blueprint for doing so.

"I'm concerned the administrative costs of running CA are going up in a time when everyone is tightening their belts," said Mr. Baker of CA's proposed $33.4 million fiscal 1996 budget. That budget proposal is the subject of a public hearing at 8 tonight at Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice village.

But as the Columbia Council prepares for a month of budget deliberations, Vice Chairman David W. Berson says it may be TC year before the panel examines every program for savings. This year, the council is likely simply to fine-tune the operating and capital budgets.

"I'd be surprised if there were major changes, but I'm going in with an open mind and open ears to listen to the people," said Mr. Berson.

The nonprofit association oversees Columbia's recreational facilities, community programs and parkland, under the council's direction. Its proposed budget, which would take effect May 1, maintains an annual levy on property owners of 73 cents per $100 of assessed property value, which comes to $365 for a $100,000 home and $730 for a $200,000 home.

The budget also includes average 4 percent merit salary raises for CA employees, and increases in recreational membership rates, softened by a one-year discount intended to encourage residents to try the new Fairway Hills Golf Course.

Among the major projects in the proposed $6 million capital budget, up from $5.8 million in fiscal 1995:

* $1.4 million for a controversial recreational vehicle parking facility, a deal that involves purchasing 5 acres of land from the Rouse Co., which in return would place other properties under the annual CA levy;

* $698,000 for Hobbit's Glen Golf Course improvements, including a $500,000 irrigation system;

* $200,000 for exterior renovation of two aging neighborhood centers -- Swansfield and Faulkner Ridge;

* $195,000 to repair the stone wall and build a dock at the Lake Kittamaqundi inlet; and

* $114,000 for the first phase of a multiyear, $600,000 plan under consideration to improve Symphony Woods park in Town Center.

Proposed programs include a $9,000 "midnight basketball" summer league at Oakland Mills High School for 17- to 24-year-olds, an $8,000 ethnic festival and a sailing camp.

Association officials say the proposal is a "fiscally prudent budget that continues basic services." It also continues progress toward eliminating CA's $16 million accumulated operating deficit, which developed during its earlier years.

The surplus CA now generates -- a projected $2.4 million next year -- is applied to CA's capital budget to slow the growth rate of its debt, which is $90 million.

Association officials insist they are running a highly efficient operation recognized for its financial strength by bond rating agencies. They add that CA has the same number of full-time employees -- about 180 -- as 20 years ago and that new services and facilities have increased administrative costs.

But Mr. Baker and two Wilde Lake neighbors -- William Ohlhausen and Paul Imre -- say CA could save money and increase efficiency. They have prepared a two-page critique of the budget, questioning proposed salary increases, recreational

facilities that run at a loss, high debt expenses and some capital projects.

As examples of places where the association could economize, they cite the Horse Center, which generates only one-third of what it costs to run it, and Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, which shows a projected $642,000 deficit. They suggest higher user fees be set for such facilities to make them self-supporting.

The Oakland Mills village board, meanwhile, suggested an independent management audit to assess how efficiently CA operates.

"What we'd like to see is some demonstrated improvements in performance year-to-year that should show up in the bottom line," said board member Keith Speidel.

Mr. Berson, meanwhile, said he wants the council to get a more detailed breakdown of all CA programs next year to determine whether residents are "getting our money's worth. If not, maybe some should be on the chopping block."

One notable change in this year's budget proposal comes in the Package Plan memberships, which provide access to pools and other facilities. They are to increase by between 1.1 percent and 5.2 percent. CA has created two categories of memberships -- one including two golf courses and another excluding them.

Memberships that include the two golf courses technically would have increased by between 10.8 percent and 16.7 percent. But a one-year introductory discount of $25 or $50, depending upon the type of membership, is intended to keep rates down until at least the 1996-1997 fiscal year.

Budget adoption is scheduled for Feb. 27, with a council work session set for Feb. 16.

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