Horse center deficit grows

Facility seen losing $120,000 more than projected in fiscal 2001

January 06, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Despite efforts to improve the Columbia Horse Center's financial performance, next fiscal year the facility is expected to lose nearly $120,000 more than officials projected just eight months earlier.

The Columbia Association's draft budget shows the center losing $164,000 during the fiscal year that begins May 1. That is more than three times the $46,000 shortfall projected in a 10-year plan for the facility unveiled by the Columbia Association last April.

The center, which is used by about 600 of Columbia's 87,000 residents each year, has come under increased scrutiny in the past year because of its financial losses. After a debate last session over its fate, the Columbia Council voted to continue funding it after Columbia Association staff devised a plan under which it would break even -- for the first time -- after six years.

The proposed fiscal year 2001 budget, released last month to the 10-member council, suggests that that is going to be harder to realize than anticipated.

Although the budget shows the center taking in $70,000 more in income than the Columbia Association projected in April, it also shows an additional $190,000 in unanticipated expenses.

"The reason for that, even though we're bringing in considerably more income than we thought we would, both the salary and the supply expenses are much higher than we thought they would be," said Rob Goldman, vice president for the association's sport and fitness division.

Salaries, for instance, are $67,000 over the April projections. Operating supplies are $54,000 over.

In an interview this week, Goldman attributed the increase in labor costs to the job market and said the reason for the added supply expense is the higher cost of feed and bedding for the horses.

He pointed to the center's projected $71,000 net from operations -- the profit before factoring in the Columbia Association's administrative overhead, interest and other related costs -- as an indication that the facility is on the right track.

That's $6,000 more than the center's expected net this year, but $65,000 short of what Goldman and center's staff predicted it would be in April.

A two-part series in The Sun in September detailed a long history of poor management and financial losses at the center, which has operated as a Columbia Association facility since 1974.

The 88-acre facility on Gorman Road offers riding lessons, horse shows, camps and therapeutic riding for the disabled.

All but a few of the association's dozens of facilities lose money, but, in the case of the equestrian center, nearly 60 percent of its users are not from Columbia. Of the approximately 600 Columbia residents who do use it, 112 take lessons, according to association estimates for the last fiscal year.

The center has lost an estimated $1.5 million since 1986.

The Columbia Council threatened to close the facility last year if the Columbia Association didn't come up with a plan to attract more resident users and improve the bottom line. Over a period of six weeks in March and April, Goldman gave the council three sets of financial projections, ranging from a $1.7 million loss over 10 years to a break-even scenario after six years.

The latter plan -- based on the assumption that the association would have to pump more money than ever into the facility to save it -- satisfied the council, which voted to keep the center open.

The proposed capital budget for the equestrian center in fiscal year 2001 includes $132,000 in expenditures, $13,000 less than projected in April.

Among them:

$35,000 for outdoor ring lights;

$30,000 for replacement fences;

$20,000 for lesson horses;

$15,000 each for a barn addition and new paddocks; and

$5,000 each for aisle paving in the barns and a new sound system for horse shows.

The Columbia Council will hear testimony on the budget from the village boards at 7: 30 tonight at Stone House in Long Reach. A public hearing is scheduled at 7: 30 p.m. Jan. 26 at Claret Hall in River Hill.

The council will adopt the final budget next month.

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