Horse center adviser resigns

Panelist says facility's woes symptom of ailing Columbia management

January 29, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The vice chairman of the Columbia Horse Center advisory committee has resigned, questioning the competence of Columbia Association officials, who oversee the management and finances of the troubled facility.

Daniel P. Bednarik -- the second committee member to resign this month after a staff shake-up -- said troubles at the horse center may be symptomatic of a larger problem at the Columbia Association, which provides services and operates facilities for city residents with a budget near $50 million.

In his resignation letter, sent yesterday to the Columbia Council, Bednarik wrote: "If one were to make an analogy to a public-traded company, Columbia would be in trouble with its stockholders."

The 88-acre center on Gorman Road, which is used by fewer than 1 percent of Columbia's 87,000 residents, has met with controversy in the past year because of its financial losses and management. Funded in part through fees that all homeowners in Columbia pay, the facility has lost an estimated $1.5 million since 1986.

"With my experience at the center and seeing its history, I just don't feel that an organization like CA should run it," Bednarik said in an interview. "I worry that CA -- and this is my own opinion -- that they're not being fiscally responsible."

But CA's vice president for sport and fitness, Rob Goldman, maintained that the horse center is headed for a turnaround.

"Obviously, we disagree with his analysis and we're very optimistic about the way things are going and moving forward at the horse center," he said.

Bednarik's resignation came two days after former Columbia Council member Alex Hekimian said the center is in "disarray" and urged that it shut down.

In the past month, the head of the facility, Kaye McCally, resigned and the barn manager and several barn hands left. Aquatics Director John Herdson, was named the interim manager.

"I think the time has come to get out of the horse center business," Hekimian said.

The Columbia Council debated closing the center last spring but decided against it after Goldman devised a long-range plan under which the facility would break even for the first time after six years.

The proposed budget for the next fiscal year shows the center well behind that goal, losing $120,000 more than officials projected last April.

Goldman said he based the 10-year plan on "best-case optimistic projections" because that's what the council asked him to do.

Fiscal concerns

In his resignation letter, Bednarik questioned the association's business sense and charged that top officials there have demonstrated "incompetence."

"My main concerns are more global in terms of how The Columbia Association continues to experience managerial difficulties at the fiscal level across all of its facilities," Bednarik wrote.

"My departure from the Advisory Committee will be marked in the record as this taxpayer's appeal to the State of Maryland for another audit of The Columbia Association, its practices, and general oversight by the state -- to guarantee fiscal responsibility to the residents of Columbia."

Bednarik said in an interview that he recently contacted state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s office because he "started feeling rather uncomfortable about how CA conducts its business and how it handles itself."

He said he had concerns about the legal status of several foreign-born barn workers and what he called "irresponsible budgeting," that "seems to be a repeated issue with the Columbia Association."

"I've seen [budget] numbers which seemed to change all the time on spreadsheets," he said.

During a period of six weeks last year, Goldman presented the council with three sets of financial projections for the center, ranging from a $1.7 million loss over the next 10 years to a break-even scenario after six.

The chief counsel in Curran's office, Robert N. McDonald, said the office would not investigate CA's finances unless there were evidence of criminality.

`Bear with us'

At a public hearing Wednesday on the association's proposed fiscal 2001 budget, the horse center advisory committee's chairwoman, Beverly Vattimo, said the personnel changes at the center were "for the better." She asked that the Columbia Council "bear with us" during the transition period.

Elizabeth Richards, a former horse center supporter, also resigned from the advisory committee this month. In a three-page letter to the council, she called for the Columbia Association to "cut bait, close the Columbia Horse Center and stay out of the horse business."

She said Goldman gave a misleading picture of the center's standing at a December meeting of the advisory committee.

According to Goldman, he said at that meeting that the facility was exceeding its projections for income, but he failed to mention the $190,000 in unanticipated expenses.

"We didn't talk about the bottom line," said Goldman. "I guess I'm sorry that we didn't talk about the whole picture."

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