CA expects surplus of $3 million

Funds earmarked for capital projects, says council chair

Budget OK likely next month

Expenses to outpace income by FY '03, projections show


January 03, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Association would grow $3 million richer under a proposed operating budget that projects $47.9 million in income and $44.9 million in expenses in the coming fiscal year.

The anticipated surplus - which officials at the nonprofit homeowners association prefer to call an "increase in net assets" - would be used for capital projects, said Columbia Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice.

Despite the projected surplus, expenses at the huge homeowners association are rising faster than income. Expenses are expected to rise nearly 30 percent between fiscal years 1998 and 2003, while income would go up less than 24 percent during the same period, budget projections show.

A proposed capital budget also under consideration includes $7.8 million in projects, including money to keep the ailing Swim Center afloat and to improve drainage at a soggy Columbia Association golf course.

Association staff prepared the proposed budgets within guidelines set by the board, which intends to maintain the current rate of 73 cents for each $100 of assessed property value.

Still, costs to use association recreational facilities, including the 23 outdoor pools, would increase slightly. The annual cost of a family pool membership would climb from $258 to $265. The least expensive individual rate for membership in a Columbia Association health club would rise from $423 to $432 a year.

Association staff members will present the spending plans to officials from the town's 10 villages during a meeting at 7:30 tonight at Slayton House in Wilde Lake. Members of the Columbia Association board of directors, who also serve as the Columbia Council, also will attend the meeting, which will be open to the public.

The operating and capital budgets cover fiscal year 2003, which begins May 1. The board expects to approve the spending plans in late February.

"There are no surprises in there," Morrison said. "Some of the capital projects may change around. I think overall we're in the ballpark."

Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, chairwoman of the budget committee, said she hopes the spending plans undergo significant change before they are approved. "This is a draft budget, and we have from now until the date we're scheduled to vote on the budget to make any changes," she said.

The budget committee wants the association to focus on its core functions - managing open space, ensuring that homeowners keep up their properties and running recreational facilities. The committee is an advisory board whose recommendations the council is free to ignore.

The budget committee also wants the association to consider dropping programs offered by the private sector or county government, particularly if the association loses money on them. Those include before- and after-school day care, which is projected to lose $94,000 in the current fiscal year; youth camps, which are expected to post a $155,000 loss; and the Sister Cities cultural exchange program, which is expected to cost the Columbia Association $70,000.

The committee also seeks to eliminate grants made to nonprofit organizations. The draft budget includes a $100,000 donation to the Columbia Foundation and a $35,000 grant to the Columbia Festival of the Arts. Both organizations share free office space at association headquarters, valued at $29,000 a year.

While those suggestions are expected to cause debate, there might be more support for another budget committee proposal - namely, that the association's recreational vehicle storage park increase its rates, with the aim of breaking even.

Despite a waiting list to get into the facility, the Columbia Association loses more than $100,000 a year on the lot, where about 140 residents park boats and campers. The parking rates are considerably lower than those charged at other area storage lots, which are also full.

Morrison said he would like to see rates at the lot increased.

The budget committee has discussed whether the association's sport and fitness division should have to be financially self-sufficient, though it has not made that a formal recommendation. That would constitute a radical - and some say impossible - change for the Columbia Association, which subsidizes many of its recreational offerings.

The draft budget projects losses of $1.6 million for the association's outdoor pools, $379,000 for Fairway Hills golf course, $282,000 for Hobbit's Glen golf club, $361,000 for the ice rink, $206,000 for its Sports Park, which has batting cages and miniature golf, and $118,000 for the horse center.

Some sport and fitness programs make money, such as the Supreme Sports Club in Owen Brown Village, which is projected to make $749,000 in the current fiscal year. The Columbia Athletic Club in Harper's Choice Village, another fitness center, is on track to make $607,000 in the same period.

Morrison said that the sport and fitness division would be self-sustaining without the outdoor pools - something no one suggests eliminating because they are popular.

The proposed capital budget includes $55,000 to improve drainage on five holes at Hobbit's Glen. The golf club had to postpone a tournament and send a letter of apology to members last summer because the greens were in poor shape.

Other major capital items include $555,000 to study, dredge or make other improvements to Columbia's three lakes, $70,000 in new equipment at the Supreme Sports Club and $100,000 to make the Bryant Woods community pool more attractive to adults.

The proposal also includes $2.3 million to repair the Columbia Swim Center. The board gave early approval to that item last month so work can get started on the 30-year-old facility.

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