Center's costs still under fire

Panel members `skeptical' on latest horse facility figures

Numbers `seem to fluctuate'

Revised request will be discussed at work session

February 15, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Cecilia Januszkiewicz,the Long Reach village representative on the Columbia Council and chairwoman of the budget committee

Several Columbia Council members are skeptical that the latest set of financial projections for the community's horse center -- the fifth in less than a year -- is "credible," and one has said he supports closing the facility.

"The numbers from last April are now being dismissed as not credible, and my concern is whether these are credible," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Long Reach's council representative and chairwoman of the budget committee.

"I guess the real question is, we know that this is not a self-sustaining enterprise, and it will require a subsidy. The question is whether we will continue to subsidize the enterprise."

Earl Jones of Oakland Mills, one of two council members to visit the facility last week, wondered why association budget projections "seem to fluctuate" so greatly from one report to the next.

"I'm going to vote to shut it down," he said. "I think we should get out of the horse business. It's nice, and it's simple to me."

The center is used by less than 1 percent of Columbia's 87,000 residents, and has lost an estimated $1.5 million since 1986.

On 88 acres off Gorman Road, the center is funded in part through a property "tax" levied on Columbia homeowners.

Columbia Association staff has recommended that the homeowners group continue to operate the facility rather than close it or lease it.

Asked whether the most recent projections are more credible than others he has provided, Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness, said, "I don't know that they are."

Those projections show the center losing $212,000 in the coming fiscal year.

In April, the projected loss was $46,000; in December, it had grown to $164,000.

Goldman said he and acting facility manager Bob Bellamy crafted the latest budget from scratch based on new information provided by center staff about income and expenses.

"If things continue as they are right now, I think those numbers have a lot of credibility," Goldman said. "Now, things don't work like that."

Adam Rich, River Hill's council representative, said the debate over the center should not be about financial losses -- nearly all association facilities and programs operate in the red -- but rather about "how we choose to spend our money."

`One big subsidy machine'

"We subsidize lots of things," he said. "We're one big subsidy machine."

Since December, the center manager has resigned, the barn manager and several barn workers have left and two members of the center's advisory committee, including the vice chairman, have stepped down amid concerns over finances, management and horse care.

The council has directed sport and fitness officials not to hire new managers until a decision has been made on the center's fate.

The Columbia Council will debate the association's revised capital budget request for $117,000 at a work session Thursday night.

Januszkiewicz said one option is to impound the funds until an outside review of the facility can be done.

The Columbia Association could hire an "expert in the field [to] look at it and tell us whether there's something we could do better," she said, "and perhaps one of the things they would tell us is we just need to increase the rates."

"I wish I knew what I wanted to do with this," Januszkiewicz said. "It is very hard to close a program at any level of the organization, I don't care what it is."

Jean S. Friedberg Jr., council representative from Hickory Ridge, said the association needs to set performance standards for its dozens of programs and facilities.

`Need to be hard-headed'

"We need to be hard-headed about how we manage this facility, and we need to be hard-headed about how we manage all our programs," he said.

Tom Forno of Harper's Choice, who also toured the center last week, suggested that Columbia residents could be served by other equestrian facilities in the area.

"The uniqueness of this facility certainly is not unique relative to the geography of Columbia," he said.

Small population, high cost

The center has been serving a very small population at a very high cost, Forno said, and its financial health has not improved.

"It's been an uninterrupted succession of red ink," he said.

Kirk Halpin, the council representative from Kings Contrivance, said what makes a facility successful is not whether it generates a profit, but whether it fulfills the association's mission.

"We are not here to make money," he said.

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