Members of the Columbia Association's three gyms can wave their free towels goodbye starting Nov. 1, the result of an austere budget proposed for the next two years that would also reduce employee pay raises but leave residents' property lien fees unchanged.
The towel move would save up to $5 million over a decade and also help the environment, officials said. But some of the few residents who've heard about the idea aren't buying it.
"I no way agree it's environmental," said Cynthia Coyle of Harper's Choice, the elected CA board member who heads the committee examining the budget. "I'm very strongly against it. These towels represent a service to our members that we have the ability to do."
Rafia P. Siddiqui, the nonprofit homeowners association's chief financial officer and vice president, said CA buys 42,000 towels a year to replace those lost, stolen or worn out. Eliminating the service would save purchasing, laundry and staff costs, plus $10,000 a year for washer and dryer replacements, she said.
The gyms use 5,500 gallons of detergent, 3,500 gallons of bleach and 4.5 million gallons of water annually on towels, not to mention 74,000 kilowatts of electricity and 231,000 therms of natural gas to run washers and dryers, Siddiqui said.
Columbia Association officials tried to cut the towels nine years ago, but support for the move on the governing board slipped after hundreds of gym patrons complained. "It's like not having chairs at the pool," one member told a Sun reporter then.
But projected savings from making patrons bring their own towels are higher now, and communications director Steve Sattler is banking on increased environmental awareness to push gym members to throw in the towel, so to speak.
"It has tremendous sustainability impact," Sattler said, noting that other gyms and pools don't provide towels. He acknowledged, however that "when you're taking something away, it will be an issue." No towels are provided at the YMCA branch in Ellicott City, but CA's newest, and closest competitor, Life Time Fitness in east Columbia, does supply towels free with membership, an employee there said.
Still, Rob Goldman, the CA vice president who tried but failed to ditch the towels nearly a decade ago, argued at a public budget briefing Wednesday night that "we believe customer service will improve" if staff members don't have to wash and fold towels.
"Almost every member of our [gyms'] staff is involved in washing, drying or folding towels," he said. He also said the idea has not been broached to gym members, though a few have been told. A major "education" campaign is planned after the policy is adopted by the 10-member board, he said.
"We'd have six months to tell everyone," he said.
The towels aren't the only target for cutbacks. Goldman said CA wants to reduce the number of tot lot playgrounds in Columbia from 171 to 136 over a decade, eliminating those infrequently used as the population ages. This spring, nine of Columbia's 23 outdoor swimming pools - one per village - will open on weekdays while schools are in session.
But the towel issue irked Frank Saletel, a member of the River Hill Village Board and one of a handful of residents at the budget meeting. Eliminating towels won't help the environment, he said, because members will have to launder them at home anyway.
"You're not going to save overall energy. Maybe CA will save energy." More important, he said, is the issue of sweating people sitting on equipment and benches, and the next person not having enough gym towels to wipe them down. "Having a towel to sit on is sanitary," he said.
Goldman said he's not worried that CA members would move to the newer Life Time Fitness just a few blocks from one of the association's three gyms.
"Most people would get over it after a few weeks. We believe it's the right thing to do," he said.
He could be right.
Outside CA's Supreme Sports Club on Thursday, several patrons said losing free towels wouldn't bother them much.
"I could live without them," said Tim May, 44. "It really wouldn't matter, one way or the other," agreed Rachel Perez, 29. But Tom Bone, 34, said it would matter to him.
"I guess that would be a little annoying. They're not going to reduce the membership fee, are they?" he asked.
Overall, the budget proposes to spend 2.6 percent more in the fiscal year starting May 1, but would cut employee merit pay raises from 3 percent to 2 percent, and halve senior bonus payments for an annual savings of $495,000. The Columbia Association adopts a two-year budget, with the second fiscal year based on the first, plus inflation.
The overall first year operating budget would be $59.3 million, with $2.6 million in surplus revenues going for debt payments. There would be no layoffs or furloughs, and the property tax-like lien fee homeowners pay would remain at 68 cents per $100 of assessed value, with a 2.5 percent annual assessment increase cap.
The capital budget would be $10 million in fiscal 2011 and $9 million in 2012, including a combined $2.3 million to begin a $5 million upgrade of Symphony Woods with new pathways, a plaza and other features.
Residents can see the board debate the budget at work sessions Thursday and testify at a public hearing on Jan. 27. A final board vote is scheduled for Feb. 24.