Tale of two counties? Howard County: Columbia Association isn't biting the bullet economically.

February 22, 1996

"IT WAS THE BEST of times, it was the worst of times." That often quoted line from Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" seems to portray the different impressions one gets when comparing cuts in the proposed Howard County budget to increases in the Columbia Association spending plan. But some things aren't what they appear to be.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker is proposing a 4.5 percent cut in the general fund next year and a 12 percent cut over the next 2 1/2 years. In contrast, the 28-year-old planned community is considering a 5.25 percent budget increase. There is a good explanation, however, for the difference in the spending plans.

The county government provides a myriad of services, including the most expensive -- schools, police and fire protection, garbage collection -- to all residents, including those in Columbia. The Columbia Association budget in large measure is devoted to providing recreational facilities and activities. With membership in its recreation programs having increased 10 percent over the past four years and expected to continue to grow, some increase in the association budget appears reasonable.

In fact, there is cause for concern about cuts in the county budget affecting recreation, since the overall county population also continues to grow. Not wanting to raise property taxes, the county may increase certain user fees at its parks and ball fields. A recent survey indicated county residents would agree to pay higher fees or taxes to maintain the current level of recreation services in the county. Many of them also will continue to pay the fees necessary to use recreational facilities in Columbia.

The Columbia Association is expected to vote on its proposed budget at its meetings next Wednesday and Thursday. Some critics have already suggested that the austerity of the times reflected in the county's proposed budget should also be evident in the association's spending plan. Certainly, the 11 percent pay raises reportedly included in that budget ought to be considered in relation to other priorities.

But the CA budget should not be viewed in the same way one assesses the county budget. The funds the association receives are more narrowly targeted. And it does not have to budget for uncertainties, such as blizzards, that cause county officials to be more cautious.

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