An article on the Columbia Association budget in last week's Howard Weekly incorrectly state the amount of the property assessment -- similar to a property tax -- that the association would receive from a $120,000 home. The assessment, which is collected at a rate of 50 percent of the home's assessed value, would be $450. (Published 1/28/ 88)
The staff of the Columbia Park and Recreation Association presented a $20 million, "no-frills" operating budget last week that it said reflects an effort to maintain and in some cases expand the association's most popular programs without passing the costs on to consumers.
But while the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins May 1 assumes that membership rates for such activities as neighborhood pools and fitness clubs will remain at their current levels, it already has come under fire from a citizens group and some Columbia Council members who wanted to see those rates and others reduced, particularly for Columbia residents.
The association budget is financed primarily by the 75-cent property tax levied on all property owners within the town's borders. The tax bill on an average $120,000 house is $900.
Other sources of revenue for the planned community include memberships to recreation facilities and fees for community services, such as day care and an arts center. Those facilities and services are also open to Howard County residents who do not live in Columbia.
The proposed operating budget for next year is 8.4 percent higher than that for the current year. Most of the $1.4 million increase would be used to pay for higher salaries that association officials have said are necessary to attract high-quality employes and for new positions they believe are needed to keep up with growth.
Programs benefiting children and youth receive the bulk of what's left of the increase. To handle the growing demand for summer activities, the staff has recommended allocating $35,000 for a full-time administrator who would work to coordinate the association's camping programs. Also included in the budget are funds to increase the number of Columbia Association's nature camp slots by 80, bringing the number of campers to 1,120, to start a new sports camp, and provide before- and after-school day care for another 30 children, a 3.5 percent increase for that program.
Columbia Association President Padraic Kennedy, echoing themes of fiscal restraint that have become increasingly familiar in rapidly growing but affluent county governments, said another factor in the budget's preparation was the level of the association's long-term deficit, which had grown to $28 million by last year.
Included in the new budget is $452,000 toward reducing that deficit, about $100,000 more than the association reserved for that purpose this year. Kennedy said such contributions are necessary if the association is to continue receiving favorable rates when it borrows money.
Also released last week was the proposed capital budget. At $2.7 million, it is significantly lower than the $9.9 million construction budget for this year, which included two high-ticket items -- the Allview Golf Course and the renovation of Oakland Manor into a community center. In contrast, most of the new capital budget would be used to replace sports and office equipment at existing facilities, purchase trucks used for maintenance, and make improvements to parking lots, roofs and fences.
The capital budget also includes $37,500 to begin planning a portion of the $6.5 million revamping of Columbia's downtown area that has been recommended by a local consultant. Council members cautioned, however, that the line item did not mean that they would necessarily approve full funding for the project, which would be funded jointly by the Columbia Association and the Howard County government.
Under the operating budget, which must be approved by the 10-member Columbia Association Board of Directors next month, some rates for the association's programs would remain at their current levels while others would rise.
Membership rates for the association's neighborhood pools would remain at their current levels, $240 for a family who is seeking to renew and $265 for new member families. In addition, the staff has recommended that families who make up to $34,000 a year receive a 25 percent discount on pool rates. The association already offers discounts of 75 percent to families with low-incomes.
Rates for Columbia Association's Package Plan -- a program that allows a family access to most recreational facilities for less than it would cost to join each separately -- would remain at this year's levels for current members who live in Columbia. They would rise an average of 4 percent for all new members and current members who do not live in Columbia.
Fees for other athletic facilities would rise between $10 and $50.
Paul Amico, who last year resigned from a council-appointed citizens budget committee in opposition to proposed rate increases, then went on to help found an independent monitoring group this year, said he was pleased that the budget did not include more for the downtown renovation and other new projects. He said, however, that his group, the Alliance for a Better Columbia, would continue pushing the council to reduce neighborhood pool rates by about $100. The council has scheduled public hearings for Feb. 10 and 11 to gather citizen response on the budget.
"I understand they want to do some deficit reduction to please the bond people, but they've earmarked a heck of a lot of money. We think it is perfectly reasonable to cut that amount in half," Amico said.
Council member Gail M. Bailey said she was disturbed by the failure of the staff to provide a "consistent difference" between what Columbia residents and non-Columbia residents pay for services. There are programs for which both groups pay the same amount, a situation that Bailey believes is unfair given the extra tax that Columbia residents pay.
The council has asked its budget committee to study the association's rate structure for neighborhood pools this month and come back with a recommendation before the council votes on the budget at the end of February. But Lanny J. Morrison, chairman of the council, said the association would be hard-pressed to make significant reductions.
"The budget message we gave to staff was one of restraint, and I think they've followed through on that," Morrison said. "We have to take a look at some of the operating expenses and some of the rates to see if there is anything we can do, but it seems like we are already squeezing everything we can into the budget at current rates." BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS OF COLUMBIA ASSOCIATION
A $20 million operating budget, an 8.4 percent increase over current spending. Pay raises that average 5.5 percent for most Columbia Association employees and up to 14 percent for lifeguards, bus drivers and other hard-to-recruit workers. An additional 80 slots in the association's summer nature camps and the creation of a sports camp. The addition of a staff member to coordinate camping programs. Three new before- and after-school day care programs that could accommodate a total of 30 children. Neighborhood pool rates that would remain at this year's levels for all members and Package Plan rates that would stay the same for Columbia residents who already hold memberships. Rates for most other athletic facilities would rise. A $2.7 million capital budget that would be used primarily to replace equipment and upgrade facilities. The capital budget also includes $37,500 to begin planning a portion of a proposed face lift for Columbia's downtown.