Board member wants to make charitable donations an option

Russell would let resident designate on lien bill amount to give nonprofits


January 22, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Association board of directors is expected to give out nearly $200,000 in grants to local causes in the fiscal year that will begin in May. Now, one member of the board wants to give Columbia residents a chance to decide whether their money should be donated.

Board member Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills is proposing that when Columbia residents pay their annual lien bills, they be offered a check-off option, like the one on tax forms, that allows them to give a dollar or two of their lien payment to charitable organizations.

Instead of the board doling out its usual annual grants, the amount of money donated would be based on what lien payers indicated. The board would still decide who would receive the money.

Some board members fear Russell's idea would lead to the end of the association's charitable giving.

"I wouldn't object to giving that money if it's what people wanted to do with their own money," Russell said. "I do object to just making charitable contributions that people don't have any say over."

The Columbia Association routinely gives grants from its lien income to nonprofit organizations, including the Columbia Foundation and the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

About 26,000 residential and commercial properties in Columbia are subject to the association's annual lien, currently 73 cents per $100 of valuation on 50 percent of a property's fair market value.

In the 2004 fiscal budget, the nonprofit homeowners association is proposing grants including $100,000 to the Columbia Foundation, to be divided equally among Columbia nonprofit human services organizations and nonprofit arts groups and performances; $15,000 for Spirit of Columbia scholarships; $35,000 for the Columbia Festival of the Arts; $5,000 for the annual Fourth of July celebration; $20,000 to the Economic Development Authority to attract and retain Columbia businesses; and $15,000 for community revitalization.

Russell said the causes the Columbia Association financially supports are "excellent" but that she doesn't consider it appropriate for the association to be making charitable donations.

"I don't think that falls within [the CA's] purpose," she said. "I just don't think it's right for the Columbia Association to be spending our assessment revenue on that."

The board of directors will discuss Russell's idea during its 2004 fiscal budget process before the group votes on the budget at the end of February. Russell had originally wanted the association staff to look into whether her proposal was legal or feasible, but the board voted that down.

"No way," board member Ed Stern of River Hill said of Russell's proposal. He said that the organizations the CA supports do an "amazing job and need all the help they can get."

"I just think that CA is part of a bigger community, and that's helping some of these foundations," Stern said. "And I would not want to see that disappear."

Board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown questioned Russell's motives, saying she hasn't heard of a large faction of residents asking that the association's charitable giving be stopped.

"It's very clear she doesn't want us to do anything to help the youth in the community or help the less-fortunate," Atkinson-Stewart said.

Russell called Atkinson-Stewart's remark "patently ridiculous. I spent most of my 35 years in Columbia volunteering to do things that help the youth and help the less-fortunate in Columbia."

Russell pointed out that along with her many years as a volunteer in schools, she served six years on the Columbia Foundation's board of directors in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During her term as vice president of the foundation, she said, she initiated the organization's first significant fund-raising drive.

Russell said her proposal is simply a way to gauge the community's interest in giving money to charities and that the point is not to end or decrease the CA's donations. She said that if people were given the option of donating money, she would expect them to be "very generous."

But she added that "if there was an overwhelming negative response, wouldn't that show us that people don't want us to be doing it?"

Former board member Steven Pine of Kings Contrivance lauded Russell's idea. Pine quit the board in 2001, partly out of frustration, claiming that he was unable to get financial information about charitable donations from the association staff.

"I personally think that [donations] should be strictly up to the people," he said. "I have questions about nonprofits giving to nonprofits and the chain it creates."

Board Chairman Miles Coffman said the charitable donations contribute to the quality of life in Columbia.

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