Council ponders trims to budget

Reducing raises, cuts in project funding for fiscal 2003 eyed

Limit on CA scope rejected

January 22, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council is thinking about cutting some capital projects and handing out less generous raises as it works to finalize its fiscal 2003 budget.

At the same time, a majority of the council has rejected budget committee recommendations intended to focus the Columbia Association's activities more on basic homeowners association functions. Critics on the council said some of the committee's suggestions run contrary to CA's founding principles.

Residents will have a chance to weigh in on the budget debate during a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at CA headquarters.

"We have our sleeves rolled up," council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice said Friday.

The spending plan projects $47.9 million in income and $44.9 in operating expenses, resulting in a $3 million surplus that officials intend to spend on capital projects.

The council also is considering a proposed $7.8 million capital budget, which includes $2.3 million in repairs to the Columbia Swim Center in Wilde Lake.

The council asked CA staff members to try to cut the capital budget by $550,000 after Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge expressed concern at a work session Thursday that it was too big.

The $2.3 million amount to be spent on the swim center will not change, however, because the council has already committed the funding to that project.

Smaller raises considered

The council also asked senior CA officials to consider whether proposed raises included in the budget should be lowered in light of the recession.

The draft budget calls for average wage and salary increases of 3.5 percent. The Columbia Association has 225 full-time employees and about 1,000 part-time and seasonal workers.

"Maybe the appropriate number might be around 3 [percent]," Morrison said.

In a series of straw votes Thursday, the council rejected the recommendations of its budget committee or set them aside without voting on them.

In a few cases, a majority of the council said there was no need to incorporate the recommendations into the budget because they were already in place.

For example, the budget committee called for a report on which CA services could be or are already being outsourced. Morrison said CA staff members are already compiling a list of outsourced services.

In other instances, the committee's recommendations highlighted sharp philosophical differences about the scope and mission of the Columbia Association, the homeowners association that presides over the unincorporated town of 88,000.

Opposing views

On one side of the debate is Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, who led the budget committee. She and a majority of budget committee members think CA should focus on the tasks of a traditional homeowners association - providing recreational facilities, maintaining open space and enforcing property standards.

To that end, the committee suggested eliminating CA's annual donations to private nonprofit groups like the Columbia Foundation and possibly cutting programs such as before- and after-school day care, youth camps and the Sister Cities cultural exchange.

On the other side of the debate is Morrison, who says CA should stay true to the broad goal laid out in its mission statement - to improve the community's quality of life.

"The grants targeted by the Budget Committee include ones for the Columbia Foundation (which, in turn, fund a variety of social, health and cultural programs ... ) and the Columbia Festival of the Arts," Morrison wrote in a letter published in the village newsletter last month. "The community services targeted include the Before and After School Care Program, camps and the Sister Cities Program. I am unequivocally opposed to these recommendations. These services and programs foster the growth of individuals, which is a pillar of CA's mission."

A majority of the 10-member council sided with Morrison on Thursday.

Russell cast the only vote in favor of cutting donations of $100,000 to the Columbia Foundation, $15,000 for six Spirit of Columbia Scholarships, $35,000 to the Columbia Festival of the Arts, $5,000 to the Fourth of July celebration, $20,000 to the Howard County Economic Development Authority and $15,000 for a community revitalization grant.

Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake did not cast a vote on that matter, saying he would like the council to study why certain nonprofits get CA support and others do not.

"You can list all the causes and they sound fantastic," Feldmark said. "It's hard for me to [justify] why we give money specifically to those causes."

Slower pace of change

Coffman said he thought some of the budget committee's suggestions were good, but represented too big a change to implement all in one year. He said he would like to look into transferring the day care program to Howard County, which runs a similar program.

But he said that would take time, just as it did when Columbia gave its bus service to the county.

"It's like Columbus [the CA bus program]. I think it took us five years to get it out of the budget," Coffman said.

Arie Eisner, a Wilde Lake resident who served on the budget committee, said he doubted the council would get around to making those big changes.

"It isn't going to happen this year," he said. "It's not going to happen next year. It's not going to happen in our lifetime."

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