The Columbia Council struggled at a work session last night to figure out how to trim the Columbia Association budget -- and to define the nonprofit organization's mission and the purposes of some of its programs.
Four hours into the session, the council had decided on little in the way of changes in the association's proposed $33.4 million operating and $6 million capital budgets for 1995-1996, but it had engaged in spirited debate on a number of items.
Several council members expressed frustration throughout the evening that the board lacked detailed information to judge where to make cuts in individual programs or specific items. They criticized themselves for not seeking such information from association managers earlier in the budget process and vowed to make a more thorough evaluation of the costs, benefits and purposes of association programs next year.
CA managers "are people trying to do their best job and respond to our jerks and pulls and yanks," said Councilman Gary Glisan of Oakland Mills village. "We don't give a lot of guidance, but we give a lot of criticism.
"We need to take a leadership role up front and evaluate programs before the budget discussions."
In a straw vote, the council deadlocked on a combined proposal to reduce from 4 percent to 3.5 percent the average merit raises for association employees and increases in grants to Columbia's 10 village associations.
Mr. Glisan opposed the proposal, saying it would have an adverse effect on employees who work in the service-oriented organization.
Others said the proposal has merit because a 3.5 percent increase would more closely match inflation indexes and would be a start toward saving money for the association. The council ** said the reduction in the merit raises would save about $41,000, but it didn't offer an estimate of how much would be saved by reducing the increase in the village association grants.
The council plans to take final votes on the budget next week. Last night's votes were not binding.
After hours of debate and questioning association staff on details of individual programs in the budget, Councilman Roy Lyons advised his colleagues that they must force themselves to confront tough decisions.
"We've sat here all night, and I don't think we've figured out anything we should reduce," he said as the council discussed trimming increases in merit raises and village association grants. "Everything is a sacred cow. At some point, we have to reach the point of not funding everything."
The council debated reducing expenses by about $20,000 for the Sister City cultural exchange program with cities in France and Spain, which will cost an estimated $49,000 and generate $5,000 in income.
But the council voted instead in favor of a proposal that will keep the funding intact until members can make a policy decision on how the program should be run. However, that proposal included a contingency to hold back nonpersonnel expenditures until policy is decided.
Councilwoman Norma Rose suggested that the program could be trimmed by cutting administrative and entertainment costs while shifting more responsibilities from the association staff to volunteers and program participants.
"Though the Sister City program is worthwhile, we spend much more than the value of the program warrants, and we spend much more than we have to to conduct a program like this," Ms. Rose said.
Councilwoman Suzanne Waller contended that trimming the program would show a lack of vision at a time when international relationships are becoming more important. She said that county businesses could benefit from the program.
The council also discussed renewing an effort to turn over the association's money-losing bus service to the county.
Member also debated the merits of running programs that lose money but benefit residents, such as the Center for the Arts and the Lakefront Festival, and how to narrow the gap between income and expenses for those programs.
"This is about being all things to all people -- a business and a quasigovernmental agency," said Council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker of Owen Brown village. "It never goes away, does it?"
The elected council directs the association, which imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, community services and parkland maintenance.