Council hears budget input

Residents favor gym towels, split on special programs

January 25, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council has little doubt about where the public stands on the great gym towel debate.

At a public hearing on the proposed fiscal 2003 budget Wednesday night, speaker after speaker said Columbia Association health clubs should continue to provide towels to patrons. No one spoke in favor of eliminating towel service, a move projected to save the Columbia Association $230,000 a year.

"I urge the council: Don't rub Columbians the wrong way," said David Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board.

It was harder to gauge public sentiment on a broader issue raised during this year's budget process: whether the association should continue to support so-called quality-of-life programs or instead focus on its core responsibilities as a homeowners association.

A majority of the council has indicated that it plans to support the programs, which include the Sister Cities cultural exchange, before- and after-school day care, and donations to local festivals and nonprofits.

The 35 speakers at the hearing were about evenly split on that topic. Michael Nagle, chairman of the council's Sister Cities committee, said such programs make Columbia a special place.

"It illustrates that Columbia is not just a sticks-and-bricks homeowners association as some people would like to have you believe," he said.

Alex Hekimian, president of the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, said the association needs to stop offering services provided by Howard County, such as before- and after-school day care.

"CA has taken on way too many activities," he said.

The council is considering a spending plan that projects $47.9 million in income and $44.9 in operating expenses. The projected $3 million surplus will be spent on capital projects, officials say.

The council is weighing a proposed $7.8 million capital budget. It is scheduled to vote on both spending plans at the end of next month.

The capital budget includes $2.3 million in repairs to the 30-year-old Columbia Swim Center in Wilde Lake. Members of the assocation's aquatics committee and the Kings Contrivance Village Board spoke out against that project Wednesday.

Barbara Seely, chairwoman of the Kings Contrivance board, said the association would save money in the long run if it built a new center instead. A consultant found that the existing facility probably would have to be replaced in 10 to 15 years despite the repairs. A new facility would cost $7 million to $14 million.

Tony Mazzarella, chairman of the association aquatics committee, agreed that a new center should be built. He said staff members should not "delude" themselves into thinking that the repaired center would last as long as 15 years.

Mazzarella also said the committee objected to plans to spend $100,000 to make the outdoor Bryant Woods neighborhood pool more attractive to older adults. He said that kind of project should not be undertaken "in the absence of a comprehensive master plan" for Columbia's 27 indoor and outdoor pools.

Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness, said such a plan would be drawn up after the council completes its strategic planning process. But he said it makes sense to go ahead with the Bryant Woods project because it is clear that the community is aging.

"Even though the complete strategy-making [process] isn't finished and even though there isn't a complete master plan for the pools, it's clear to me that the pools need to evolve to serve Columbians as they age," he said.

At Wednesday's hearing, village boards asked for more money to keep the salaries of employees competitive. The draft budget includes enough money for 2 percent raises. The villages want that increased to 3.5 percent, the average wage and salary raise the draft provides for Columbia Association staff.

At a meeting last week, the council said it might reduce the raises, perhaps to 3 percent, because of the recession.

The plan to eliminate towel service at association gyms has been among the most controversial aspects of the budget. Most council members have said they intend to restore towels to the final budget.

The council's budget committee, chaired by Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, helped spark the debate.

The committee recommended that the association eliminate or reduce its annual donations to private nonprofit groups such as the Columbia Foundation and find some other organization, possibly Howard County, to run programs such as before- and after-school day care and youth camps.

Former Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach said it is time for the county to pick up some of those programs, because many serve people who do not live in Columbia.

"County residents pay lower taxes precisely because Columbia residents shoulder so much of the county's responsibilities for countywide recreational, cultural and social needs," she said.

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