Growth time at Columbia Association $1.7 million increase being sought for next year's budget

Critics aren't pleased

County executive's proposed cuts loom in background

February 18, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

In an era of cutbacks in governments and private business, the Columbia Association (CA) keeps getting bigger.

For next year, the huge homeowners' association -- which serves as the parks and recreation agency for the 28-year-old planned town -- is proposing a $1.7 million increase in its current budget. That's a 5.25 percent raise.

By comparison, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening is proposing an increase of one-tenth of 1 0.1 percent for the state general fund.

And Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is proposing a 4.5 percent cut in his general fund -- the first step toward a goal to cut 12 percent over the next 2 1/2 years.

Mr. Ecker plans to plow the money back into new programs demanded by his growing county.

CA even is proposing an 11 percent increase in salary and wages for the coming fiscal year -- more money for raises and new hires -- while county and state government agencies plan to hold such costs steady or cut them through attrition and, when necessary, layoffs.

"Not only are governments restructuring, but businesses are, too," said Chuck Rees, a spokesman for the fledging Columbia )) Municipal League, a group seeking a regular city government for the 82,000-person planned community, and a former member of the Columbia Council, CA's board. "So CA shouldn't exempt itself."

But while critics point to the budgets of other governments, CA officials say such comparisons are unfair.

"Sometimes, they are not comparing apples to apples," said CA spokeswoman Pam Mack. The association must respond to increased demands for its services, she said.

Just try to use the crowded exercise machines at the Supreme Sports Club during rush hour, CA officials point out.

Also, according to officials with experience in both CA and county government, the county may be going too far in its cost-cutting.

Both the county and the CA are now preparing their operating budgets for the next fiscal year.

Vote is next week

CA's is closer to completion, and the Columbia Council -- a 10-member governing body with elected representatives from Columbia's 10 villages -- is scheduled to vote on the budget at its meetings Feb. 28 and 29.

One way to analyze CA's financial situation is to compare it -- not with the county as a whole -- but with the county's Recreation and Parks Department, said Joan Lancos, a member of the recreation and parks board of directors and a former Columbia Council member.

Each entity collects about half its revenue from fees and half from taxes or, in CA's case, annual lien payments that are much like property taxes.

And each entity must cope with increasing demands. CA's recreational membership has increased 10.1 percent over the past four years, while Howard County's population has increased 5.7 percent, according to figures provided by CA and government officials.

But CA budgeted $33.4 million in expenses this year, while the county Recreation and Parks Department budgeted just $11 million.

And for next year, the differences in funding between the two entities would widen, with CA's goal of a 5.25 percent increase and the county's cost-cutting.

To offset this, parks officials plan to shift more of their expenditures to the category funded by fees -- and to increase fees for such activities as softball leagues and summer camps.

Too many cuts?

Ms. Lancos believes the county cuts go too far. "We're doing more than I would like," she said.

Hope Sachwald, a Columbia Council member from Harper's Choice, agrees: "The county government is taking the [county] Recreation and Parks Department and putting it on the back burner."

This comes shortly after a parks department survey showed that more than half of the 5,573 Howard County residents questioned said they would pay higher fees or taxes simply to maintain the current level of recreation services in the county.

But the county parks department is competing for funds with schools, police and roads -- seen by Mr. Ecker as higher priorities.

This illustrates the key difference between governments and homeowners' associations, said Evan McKenzie, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and author of "Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government."

Governments generally must answer to a bottom line provided by tax revenue and at the same time meet a broad range of citizens' demands for services. Homeowners' groups provide much narrower ranges of service and generally can raise fees to meet rising needs, Mr. McKenzie said.

As Ms. Lancos, the former CA council member and current recreation and parks member, put it: "The pressure is not there for the Columbia Association to have that mean and lean way of thinking."

Some of Columbia's critics put it even more bluntly.

"I don't know of CA ever cutting a nickel on anybody," said Charles Ahalt, a former Columbia Council member and regular ** CA gadfly.

Richard F. Kirchner, speaking recently before the Columbia Council during its budget discussions, called for cuts in wages and salaries "given the context of the economic climate in Columbia and Howard County."

Just one of the 10 members of the Columbia Council, Norma Rose of Wilde Lake, agrees that holding CA to governmental standards is appropriate.

"The public model is highly relevant," she said. "I take that into my judgment as to what is an appropriate [budget] increase, but I don't have much support [on the council] for that."

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