Residents argue priorities for next year's CA budget

Sister Cities project is praised, criticized

September 27, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Residents spoke out in favor of their pet projects and against their pet peeves at a public hearing seeking input on the Columbia Association's next budget this week.

The Columbia Association's Sister Cities program attracted the most attention at Tuesday's meeting, with most speakers urging continued or even enhanced funding but others saying that it strays far from the association's core responsibilities as a homeowners association. The Columbia Association provides $66,000 of the program's $81,000 annual budget, with the rest coming from grants and fees from participants.

The program coordinates student, business and arts exchanges between Columbia and its two sister cities, Cergy-Pontoise, France, and Tres Cantos in Spain. Several supporters referred to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and said friends they had made through the program had called and sent e-mail from overseas to express their support.

"This is the stuff that peace is made of, and we need that," said Aline Feldman of Harper's Choice, an artist who participated in the program. "That is like a stone out in a pool and all the ripples go out."

Another supporter, Rick LaRocca, broke into song to voice his support, singing every verse of "From a Distance" from the speaker's podium to a somewhat startled budget committee.

"This is not a time to cocoon or withdraw," LaRocca said.

But Alex Hekimian, president of the citizens watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, said that this is a time when the Columbia Association should look for ways to reduce expenses, eliminating programs that duplicate county services or don't fit in with the basic objectives of a homeowners association.

"CA does not have the luxury to be all things to all people," he said.

In addition to the Sister Cities Program, Hekimian suggested transferring the association's horse center, two golf courses and sports park to Howard County. He questioned why the association runs a before-school and after-school day care program when Howard County has one.

Donation to foundation

Hekimian also spoke against the $100,000 annual donation the association makes to the Columbia Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

Dr. Robert N. Sheff, president of the Columbia Foundation, spoke in favor of the association's continued support of the foundation, which makes grants for local projects in human services, culture and education that improve the community.

"It benefits the homeowners directly," he said.

The hearing was called to give the public input in the budget process at an earlier stage than usual, said Barbara Russell, chairwoman of the budget committee and Oakland Mills' representative to the Columbia Council.

During the last budget process, the council held a public hearing in January, about a month before it passed a $44 million operating budget and $7 million capital budget for the current fiscal year, which ends April 30, 2002.

After Tuesday's hearing, the Columbia Association's board of directors held a meeting to discuss new financial projections for the organization based on first quarter performance.

Association President Maggie J. Brown reported that the organization is on track to end the fiscal year with a $4.06 million surplus. That's $1.39 million higher than anticipated. There was no discussion of what might be done with that extra money.

The variance is, in part, the result of higher-than-expected assessment revenue from new properties built in the Gateway Industrial Park, Brown said.

Interest expenses for the year are estimated to be $815,000 lower than projected because some bonds were refinanced at lower interest rates. Also, the interest rate obtained on new bonds was lower than anticipated, she said.

Bonus approved for Brown

At the same meeting, the board, which also serves as the Columbia Council, voted to give Brown a $10,000 bonus for about one month of service as the Columbia Association's interim president.

Brown was the association's vice president for community services when the council named her interim president in January.

She took over from Charles Rhodehamel, who had held the job since President Deborah O. McCarty resigned under pressure in May 2000.

Less than a month later, as a national search for a permanent president fell apart amid charges of racism, the council promoted Brown to the full-time job, which pays $125,000 a year.

Chairman Lanny Morrison said the council wanted to recognize Brown for "stepping up to the plate" at a difficult time for the association.

The council had awarded Rhodehamel, the association's vice president for open space management, a $35,000 bonus for about nine months of service as interim president.

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