Board decides against stipends

Panel rejects proposal to pay its members $5,000

Budget vote set tonight

CA membership, use fees expected to increase

Columbia

February 19, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Association's board of directors has decided to not include $5,000 stipends for board members in the fiscal 2004 budget scheduled to be voted on tonight.

The board also is expected to approve at least 2 percent increases in the cost of association membership plans and use fees for facilities, including swimming pools and golf courses.

The stipends, proposed by board member Kirk Halpin of Kings Contrivance, were intended to encourage more residents to run for the 10-member Columbia Council, which also acts as the board for the 95,000-resident homeowners group.

The volunteer board has never been paid. Under the proposal, members would receive the money if they attended at least 80 percent of the required meetings from start to end.

The board voted 5-2 in a straw vote to remove the $50,000 from the budget during a work session last week. The board is scheduled to vote on the proposed budget today.

"When we get to a point where we're not borrowing any money, then I'd consider it," said board member Wolfger Schneider of Harper's Choice, referring to the association's negative cash flow.

Some board members said that while they supported the idea, they felt uneasy about voting for the money. Some suggested villages put the topic on their ballots to gauge response.

"I think we do deserve it because we do work hard," said board member Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake. "But I'm universally uncomfortable with voting myself money in the budget."

Three board members who are in the middle of two-year terms - Schneider and Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown and Donna L. Rice of Town Center -would have been guaranteed the money if the stipends were approved and they met the attendance requirement. The other seven are either at the end of their two-year terms or have only one-year terms.

Rice said she has never had as high a time demand as a volunteer as while on the board, nor responsibility for millions of dollars. She has said the position requires too much not get "a token" payment. "It is difficult to get people to run for this, it is difficult to get people to stay on the board because of the demands," she said.

Candidates have been sparse in recent elections. Last year, three of the six council members who were up for re-election ran in contested races; each faced one challenger.

Board member Ed Stern of River Hill said his village board members had a different perspective - they thought he should use the money to "pay back" his family, with a trip or entertainment because the board takes up so much time. "I have a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old who have not seen me a lot in the past two years," Stern said.

Board Chairman Miles Coffman said he does not think it would be right to be paid because he saw the council and board as volunteer positions.

He questioned if candidates would be running for "the right reason" if stipends were awarded. "If they're doing it for the money, that's the wrong reason," he said.

The board also gave preliminary approval to the association's proposed annual membership rate increases. Most of the association's membership plans and facilities - including 23 outdoor pools and three gyms - have proposed fee increases of at least 2 percent.

The board also approved a 2 percent to 3 percent rate increase at Fairway Hills Golf Club, which was proposed to have the same rates as the current fiscal year.

Russell said she was opposed to raising any rates, especially the prices at the association's outdoor pools. She noted that the association is standing to get "a bonanza of money" from increased lien payments stemming from rising property tax assessments. The association is expected to gain $2.2 million from increased lien payments - 73 cents per $100 of valuation on 50 percent of the fair market value - from east Columbia homes in fiscal 2004.

"I think this is a time to be looking at what we can do to serve the most number of people," she said.

Coffman, however, pointed out that only about 40 percent of Columbia residents use the association's facilities, so the entire town should not have to share the burden of covering those membership fees with their lien payments. In a few years, the association should consider reducing the lien fees, so everyone can benefit from the extra money brought in from home reassessments, he said.

"If anything, we should be increasing membership fees," Coffman said.

The board also agreed preliminarily last week to continue its before- and after-school programs in three elementary schools outside Columbia - Centennial and Worthington, both in Ellicott City, and Hammond, in Laurel.

Michelle Miller, the association's vice president for community services, said those schools contain children whose parents live or work on Columbia Association property.

Those three programs also make money and were not subsidized by lien payers, Miller pointed out. For fiscal year 2002, the three schools' programs brought in $55,184.

However, board member Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, said that it "doesn't impress" her that the programs are making money. She said she felt the association should not be running those programs outside Columbia, allowing some people who do not pay the association lien to use them.

"A lot of people feel that people who are not paying the lien should not benefit," Russell said. "It's not a matter of `Let CA do whatever to make the most money.' "

Stern said offering the services is about "doing the right thing. I'm not sure what kind of country we'd have right now it we only played in our own arena."

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