Panel cautioned on closing horse center

Official fears effect on other programs

February 08, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Closing or leasing the Columbia Horse Center based on its financial losses would set a precedent that could lead to the closure of other Columbia Association facilities and programs, an association vice president has warned the town council.

In a report on the center's finances and operations released Friday, Rob Goldman of the association's sport and fitness division recommended that the homeowners group continue operating the facility, despite new projections showing it losing nearly $50,000 more in fiscal 2001 than was forecast in December.

Goldman said the facility, which is used by less than 1 percent of Columbia's 87,000 residents and has lost an estimated $1.5 million since 1986, provides a "unique" amenity and adds to the "diversity of the activities available to Columbians."

To close it, sell it or lease it "would set a precedent that could lead to initiatives to close, sell or lease a variety of other CA facilities / programs in all of CA's operating divisions."

Faced with rising costs, stagnating income and $9 million in program and facility losses over the past five years, the 10-member council has begun to discuss closing some of the city's dozens of amenities.

Four sport and fitness facilities and services -- including two health clubs, a discount buying service and tennis courts -- are expected to make a profit in the next fiscal year. Goldman said closing the horse center based on financial losses would raise a "philosophical question" about the association's role as a service provider.

The horse center and other facilities, such as the outdoor pools and skating rink, are funded in part by a property "tax" levied on businesses and homeowners by the Columbia Association.

"The annual CA assessment is used to subsidize the programs and facilities of the Columbia Association," the report says. "There are existing CA facilities with costs per visit and annual costs per unique resident user that are greater than the Horse Center's. A key issue for CA is, what is the criteria for subsidizing its services?"

Since December, the center has suffered a series of setbacks. The facility head and two members of its advisory committee resigned, the barn manager and several barn workers left, and 18 horses were removed by their owners from the boarding stalls.

The changes led Goldman to revise budget projections for fiscal year 2001.

Now, the center is expected to lose $183,000 this fiscal year, $69,000 more than the December forecast in the Columbia Association budget. Next fiscal year, the facility is expected to lose $212,000 -- $48,000 more than the original budget.

An ambitious 10-year plan released to the council in April showed the center on track to break even after six years. It is unclear whether the center is still expected to do so in the next 10 years.

Goldman has declined to discuss the report until after he formally presents it Thursday to the Columbia Council.

At the council's request, the report outlines several options for the horse center. In addition to having the association continue operating it, they include:

Leasing the business.

Selling the business and leasing the land.

Closing the business. Converting the facility to another use.

Continuing the current operation with supplemental activities that have "broader community appeal."

According to the report, the number of resident users and the net income from operations have improved since the Columbia Association resumed management of the center from a lessee in 1996.

In weighing the center's fate, Goldman asked that the council consider that operating it is "more challenging than other CA facilities because it includes livestock."

Issues relating to the care of about 70 horses, the report says, include the "lack of availability of staff with experience handling livestock" and the "somewhat unpredictable nature of horses. This creates operating expenses that can be difficult to predict and control."

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