Columbia Association board reverses on aid to nonprofits

Poverty, arts advocates cheer but aren't satisfied

February 28, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

The quick Columbia Association board reversal on providing community grants to nonprofits revealed a difference between the way some community advocates for the arts and the county's poorest people see the association's role, and the way board members see it.

Guaranteeing that the Columbia Festival of the Arts will get the full $95,000 originally proposed was the first thing the board did with an 8-0 vote at the budget-voting session Wednesday night. Nearly 100 people in a standing-room-only crowd - some wearing arts festival T-shirts - applauded loudly. Their e-mails and their presence had sent a clear message to board members, said budget committee chairwoman Cynthia Coyle of Harper's Choice.

"I saw a lot of e-mails today," Coyle said, pointing out before voting that earlier straw votes were to cut overall nonprofit grants and give CA President Phil Nelson discretion to spend the rest after he developed criteria for his choices - not to specifically cut the arts festival funding.

Gregg Schwind, Hickory Ridge's representative, had started the move to cut nonprofits by suggesting that the fund should be $100,000 instead of the $260,000 proposed. He said he had not realized how the timing of the decisions could disrupt planning for the arts festival, but he didn't back away from his views.

"I sense certain organizations have a sense of entitlement," he said. Later, he said he was out to make a variety of cuts to position CA for lean times.

"My feeling is that every aspect of the budget was on the table. We reduced a number of things."

The board rejected a suggestion by Town Center's Suzanne Waller to leave the $260,000 alone this year and study the issue. Instead, the board agreed with Coyle to spend $234,000 on grants next fiscal year, which is more than the $200,000 agreed to on a straw vote Monday night. At $260,000, the grants amount to 0.4 percent of the homeowners' association's annual operating budget, CA officials said.

But although they cheered the partial restoration, those in the audience were not satisfied and made it very clear in speeches to the board.

"Columbia's safety net depends on nonprofit organizations," said Padriac Kennedy, co-chair of the Columbia Foundation Leadership Council and CA president for 26 years.

"Quite frankly, we were appalled to read that the board was even considering reducing funding to nonprofits, particularly at a time like this. CA should consider increasing funding. This is not about entitlement," he said. "CA can more than afford community grants.

Steve Sachs, a past president of the foundation, was even more blunt.

"This is a test of your leadership. You're in good [fiscal] shape. There's a lot of need out there. If you guys aren't going to lead, who is?" He said everyone who has a job should be giving more to nonprofits during the recession, since the need is greater and donations are suffering.

Mimi O'Donnell, board chairwoman for the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the county's primary homeless shelter, rattled off a list of statistics showing that need.

She said Grassroots put 280 people in motels, plus those in the shelter's 55 beds, the two-dozen cold-weather shelter beds in churches around the county during winter and the more than 400 visits to a day shelter the county operates in North Laurel. Grassroots' crisis phone line gets 100 calls a day on average, and the mobile crisis team responds to potentially violent emergencies every day.

"Please, I beg you to reconsider your decision," she said. The big crowd then departed, and business returned to more mundane budget decisions.

Other groups that get money from the 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 Columbia residents who can't 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 they don't want to harm important CA-funded events. Board members were also told that the $87,000 that goes annually to the Columbia Foundation is all given to various nonprofit welfare and arts agencies that foundation leaders are better equipped to choose.

With midnight nearing Wednesday night, the board voted 8-0 to approve the $59.2 million operating budget and a $10.5 million capital spending plan for fiscal 2011, which begins May 1, and $61.1 million for fiscal 2012, plus a $5.6 million 2012 capital budget. The CA adopts budgets in two-year cycles, though changes can be made in the second year.

The CA lien rates for homeowners will not change, though the organization expects to lose $340,000 next fiscal year because of falling property values. The rate is 68 cents per $100 of value, but only 2.5 percent of any increase in value can be taxed each year.

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