Columbia board argees to restore funding for arts festival

February 25, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Faced with a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 supporters of the arts and nonprofits organizations, the board of the Columbia Association voted unanimously to give the Columbia Festival of the Arts its full funding allotment of $95,000 for this year's event.

The board also voted unanimously to fund a total of $234,000 for community grants and nonprofits instead of a lower amount approved in a straw vote Monday night.

The actions -- which were approved in final budget votes late Wednesday night -- reverse votes the board took Monday night to cut funding for grants to $200,000.

At the Monday meeting board member Russell Swatek of Long Reach said that he particularly wanted to cut the grant to the county's Economic Development Authority because he often personally disagrees with its positions on public issues. Swatek, who opposes the recently approved rezoning to allow redevelopment of downtown Columbia, is organizing an effort to petition the County Council rezoning bill to referendum on the November election ballot.

He rejected an e-mailed call to resign from the board from downtown plan advocate Jud Malone, who said Swatek's dual roles conflict.

The board was scheduled to take final votes Wednesday night on the proposed $59.3 million operating budget that takes effect May 1.

The straw votes Monday night reversed several of CA president Phillip Nelson's recommendations to eliminate a part-time community organizer in Oakland Mills and not to hire a full-time watershed manager. Instead, the board voted to not only keep the Oakland Mills organizer, but to hire another one for Wilde Lake, and to fill the watershed post full time.

The 6-0 vote on community-wide grants came despite warnings from staff members that the June celebration of the Columbia Festival of the Arts would likely be forced to cancel without the $95,000 contribution from CA, and that plans are also well under way for the July Fourth fireworks display that is mostly paid for by county government. The association gives the county $6,000 to help pay for the fireworks and party, which last year cost $60,000.

Nichole J. Hickey, executive director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, said a cut in CA funding would threaten the entire event, particularly the first three days of free activities on the lakefront.

"We would have to revisit the entire festival," she said.

Brochures advertising the June 11-26 festival are due for delivery to the printer March 1, she said, and "contract offers are out and license agreements are out."

The festival, which features both free and ticketed performances at various venues in Columbia, costs about $700,000, according to Hickey, cut from $900,000 due to the recession.

The other members of the 10-person CA board were not present for the vote. But board members present for the 11:15 p.m. vote cut $60,000 from the total $260,000 devoted to charitable grants, and said they want Nelson to have discretion to decide what to do with the rest.

"It's not an entitlement from year to year," said Kathleen Dragovich of Dorsey's Search, who suggested converting the annual gifts to groups such as the Columbia Foundation and the Economic Development Authority to a discretionary fund controlled by Nelson.

Other groups that get money from CA are Neighbor Ride -- the low-cost transportation service for seniors -- Spirit of Columbia Scholarships, and Howard County's Home Repair and Modification Program, which uses the CA money to help residents who cannot pay for items required under the planned town's covenants.

Generally, the board members said they want to save money in what they see as the start of a period of rising expenses but static revenues, and several added that they do not want to harm important CA-funded events.

"I don't want to mess up the Lakefront event," budget committee charwoman Cynthia Coyle of Harper's Choice said about the June Festival of the Arts. Board members were also told that the $87,000 that annually goes to the Columbia Foundation is given to various nonprofit social welfare and arts agencies that foundation leaders are better-equipped to choose.

Only Dragovich favored cutting free gym towels at CA gyms, however, despite renewed pleas from staff members that the $5 million in projected savings over the next decade would be important. The board approved raising gym membership fees $2 per month per member to replace the savings that cutting them would produce.

"I asked people at the sports clubs," said Town Center member Suzanne Waller. "I must have talked to 50 people. 'Keep the towels,'" was the unanimous message.

"How much anger are you willing to take?" Waller asked later. "They [residents] have spoken -- loudly."

She then suggested raising membership fees to pay for the towel service, but Coyle put that vote off until the next meeting.

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