Unlike other government entities scrounging for money, the Columbia Association expects to have more money coming in next fiscal year than it anticipates spending. On top of that, the homeowners association has $4.5 million left over from the current fiscal year, ending April 30.

Figures like that, driven by rising property assessments, are prompting some in Columbia to wonder whether the community's 90,000 residents should get a bigger break on property liens and fees as the association prepares a spending plan for fiscal 2003-04.

That notion, however, gets a wary reception from most Columbia officials. "That could be pretty shortsighted," said Joshua Feldmark, who represents Wilde Lake on the elected 10-member board that oversees the association. "It's not extra money floating around."

Feldmark pointed out that the association has long-term debt from Columbia's early years of development that it's still paying off.

The association expects next fiscal year it will have income of $50.3 million and expenses of $45.86 million. Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said the association expects it will have to borrow $3 million to help pay for next year's $7.46 million capital budget.

Among other things, the budget proposes to rebuild 16 greens at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club for $679,000. Other capital projects include renovating community center buildings in the villages of Wilde Lake and Owen Brown, rebuilding "tot lots" and constructing pathways in the village of River Hill.

Brown pointed out that the association last borrowed a far greater amount -- $20 million -- in fiscal 2001-02. The goal, she said, is to maintain Columbia's current facilities and use any increases in operating revenue to lessen the association's need to borrow money. The operating budget, like this year's, proposes a lien on property of 73 cents for every $100 of assessed value.

"We are being very prudent in our financial management of CA's funds," she said.

But Barbara Russell, the Columbia Council's Oakland Mills representative, thinks new ideas, such as how to create more affordable fees for Columbia's pools, tennis courts and health clubs don't get aired too much by the staff developing the fiscal plan. The budget proposes hikes of about 2 percent in yearly resident fees for some facility memberships.

The Columbia Council, which was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the budget this week, "follows year after year along the same pattern," she said. "It doesn't give much opportunity for really inventive or new or different ideas to become part of the budget process."

Steven Pine, a former council member from King's Contrivance, would like to see the association adopt a fee system that, for example, grants a proportionately greater discount to people who use Columbia's pools and tennis courts rather than to those who use more expensive amenities such as the golf courses.

The council, he said, should adopt those kinds of discounts "if they're really serious about serving and providing for people of different incomes."

Miles Coffman, chairman of the Columbia Council and a Hickory Ridge resident, said rather than restructure Columbia's fees, he'd like to reduce the property lien rate.

But that shouldn't happen now, he said, because Columbia's cash flow still isn't strong enough. When the depreciation of Columbia's facilities is added to the money that's needed to repay debts and pay for new capital projects, the community's surpluses disappear in the budget columns.

"Over the last couple of years we've greatly improved the financial position of the Columbia Association, and that's what we need to keep doing," he said.

Brown said that giving Columbia residents a break on property liens or membership fees "is two to three years down the road. This is not the year."