CA budget: slight increases, surpluses proposed

The Columbia Association's proposed budgets for the next two fiscal years include only nominal increases — .03 percent for 2013 and another 1.8 percent increase for 2014 — while the association is looking into measures that will save more money for the future.

CA staff have proposed a $59.9 million budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins in May, an increase of $21,000 from the previous fiscal year. The proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year would increase by another $1.1 million.

The budgets drew only scant interest at a public hearing Thursday, where just five people spoke. Another hearing is scheduled for Jan. 25, and more feedback is expected then.

Board members said the low turnout this week likely was due to the budget being released just before the holidays, in late December, giving people little time to review it.

"They want to look at it, digest it and provide their comments," board Chairman Michael Cornell, of River Hill, said. "The input will be there. This community isn't shy about telling you what they think."

Public response can influence board decisions, board members said.

"If it becomes a question of priorities, then it's very important for us to know what the residents think about setting priorities between programs or, in effect, competing interests," said Shari Zaret, of Kings Contrivance. "That's the sort of thing that people have to go through carefully, see what the impact us and then give us some feedback."

CA is expected to continue to run at a surplus, according to budget documents. Estimated revenue for this fiscal year is $62.7 million, putting the association about $2.8 million in the black. CA staff predicted surpluses of about $3.5 million for the 2013 fiscal year and about $3.6 million for the 2014 fiscal year.

The association's bottom line has benefited in the past from a healthy housing market, according to Cornell. Annual fees are based on assessed property value, but there is a cap on how much the fees can increase each year. When properties are resold at higher prices, CA can bring in more money.

"We never budgeted for that, but it would generate a cushion," Cornell said. Conversely, he said, with a slower economy, "We really have to be more careful about not just saying, 'Let's increase expenses this year.' We're running very tight."

Zaret and Cornell noted a few measures where CA is seeking to lower expenses, including long-term planning concerning lake dredging and watershed management, and the installation of solar panels at River Hill pool and, potentially, on 2.4 acres of land near Columbia Gateway Drive.

Regarding dredging, Dennis Mattey, the association's director of construction, said money can be saved by not allowing sediment to build up over decades in Columbia's lakes and ponds.

The solar panels, meanwhile, could help CA conserve energy, which would bring both environmental and financial benefits.

"That's really what sustainability is about," Zaret said. "Even though it takes money up front to construct these things, I think we're going to see that there will be a wonderful return in the long run."

Reductions in what a village pays for energy could free up more money to be used for services, Cornell said.

CA is also facing the cost of replacing its aging infrastructure, he said.

"CA invested a lot of money and took on a lot of debt 30 or 40 years ago getting the infrastructure in place," he said. "And now we're at a point where buildings, where slides at the pools are literally starting to fall apart."

Board members will weigh these and other topics during the budget process, which is slated to conclude in late February. At the Jan. 5 meeting, the few residents who spoke brought up services for senior citizens and questions about dredging and facility memberships.

Alex Hekimian, who represents Oakland Mills, said he hopes that as the board goes through the budget, members consider the economic difficulties that people are facing.

"I hope we can be compassionate as far as what we charge people to use our services," he said.

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