Several pushing for more minority contracting by CA

Some also asking for employee pay disclosure

November 27, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Prodded by a state delegate, Columbia Association officials are planning to create a program to guarantee that minority-owned businesses get a minimum percentage of contracts, something advocates say is long overdue for the giant homeowners' association.

At the same time, Del. Frank S. Turner has joined a community watchdog group's effort to get CA to routinely disclose pay and bonus information for each association employee. Turner complained that CA should not be asking cash-strapped county and state governments for money to help dredge the town's lakes and rebuild Symphony Woods Park while paying employees annual cash bonuses. State and county employees have been hit with pay cuts in the form of unpaid furloughs and layoffs, and more may be coming.

"Not disclosing bonuses makes all interested parties believe that you could have used bonus money to fund those projects instead of requesting money from the state," Turner wrote to Columbia Association President Phillip Nelson. At the very least, Turner said, the pay and bonus information should be disclosed. "If they're going to raise association fees and come to the state and ask for money, they shouldn't be passing out bonuses," he said. Over the past few years CA has received $825,000 in state and county money for dredging and Symphony Woods.

The Columbia Association operates in some ways like a government, raising and spending about $60 million a year from membership fees and dues and a lien fee, similar to a property tax, charged every homeowner. In addition, CA spends about $10 million a year on capital projects. Residents of each of Columbia's 10 villages elect one representative to sit on an unpaid policy-making board of trustees.

Nelson said he has taken seriously Turner's suggestions, which were supported by a letter from County Executive Ken Ulman, and is readying a minority business enterprise program, though details aren't set. He said CA already follows government minority business guidelines for contracts involving the use of public government money. Those rules require that 10 percent to 25 percent of contracts go to minority-owned businesses.

"We don't have a [minority business enterprise] policy yet, but one will be rolled out in December," Nelson said. "Every time we get state funds or federal funds, we follow their requirements."

Nelson wrote a reply to Turner, though the delegate said he had not received the letter. In it, Nelson said that "the Columbia Association has always promoted diversity in the Columbia community, in our work force and in the persons and organizations with which we do business." He pointed out, however, that as a private corporation, CA is not bound by the same laws that governments must adhere to.

Minority business programs are intended to open opportunities for racial and gender minorities in business who might have had a hard time obtaining contracts otherwise. County Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, also backs Turner's position, he said. Ulman wrote to Nelson, saying, "I believe that [minority business] goals in awarding contracts reflect our commitment to an open and integrated society."

Jim Saunders, vice president of J and J Auto Body in Columbia, a 30-year-old family-run company, said such a program at CA is long overdue. Saunders is African-American.

"They need to have a program," he said. "Their process may not be as fair as it needs to be, as far as having a level playing field." Saunders said his firm has done work for Howard County government over the years but has "never had any real success" with CA. "We've been invited to write estimates for their fleet," he said, but never got the work. Other, newer firms might need help to learn how to get those contracts, he said.

Cynthia Coyle, chairwoman of the CA board, agreed that a minority contracting system should be created. "I'm very much an advocate for it," the former military nurse said. "It's incredibly important. We stand for that [racial and economic inclusion], and we need to do it." Coyle represents Harper's Choice village.

The pay and bonus and disclosure issue is more contentious.

"We provide bonuses because we don't pay into a retirement plan. This is one way to make it up," Nelson said. Workers have a retirement savings system they contribute to instead. Turner was unimpressed. "They can't pay bonuses and ask the state for money. I want some resolution of it," Turner said.

Coyle and other CA leaders have argued that CA should get help paying for projects like dredging and revamping Symphony Woods because their maintenance and use isn't confined to Columbia. Sediment in the lakes comes from upstream areas outside the town, and the three lakes, as well as Symphony Woods, are enjoyed by thousands of people from across the area. That financial help from the state and county has nothing to do with bonuses, Coyle said.

"We're a private corporation. I don't see that argument as holding water," she said.

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