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Columbia assessment unchanged


The Columbia Association's proposed $31.8 million operating budget for 1994-95 maintains the current property assessment rate, but projects the weakest income growth from the charge in the association's history, said President Padraic Kennedy.

The spending plan released yesterday, which represents a 3.9 percent increase over this year's $30.6 million adopted budget, would maintain community services and recreational facility rates at nearly the same levels.

The nonprofit, private association, which manages the unincorporated city's recreational facilities, community programs and open space areas, prepares the budget at the direction of the 10-member Columbia Council, which acts as the association's board of directors.

The proposed budget contains "very few changes in scope," Mr. Kennedy said. "It's a reasonable budget that tries to respond to the directions the council gave. It continues a high level of service and has a very modest increase, below inflation, in rates for new [recreational facility] members."

Assessment income is projected to increase by only 2.6 percent over a recently lowered estimate for the current year's budget. By contrast, assessment income increased by an average of more than 12 percent annually from 1989 to 1992.

Mr. Kennedy attributes the flat revenue to slow rates of commercial and industrial development and a decrease in the growth rate of residential property values.

The association projects that new appraisals of east Columbia properties will show a 4.5 percent increase, well below previous reappraisals. The state reappraises properties every three years.

The association's proposed $5.8 million capital budget includes $1.15 million for the construction of a new pool and meeting room in River Hill, Columbia's final village, and $965,000 for a new pool in Long Reach village's Kendall Ridge neighborhood.

The association projects $33.8 million in income next year -- $17.1 million from the city's 73-cent property assessment, and $16.7 million from facility memberships and other revenue-producing programs. The $2 million surplus would be applied toward reducing the association's accumulated operating deficit, projected to be $18.3 million when the current fiscal year closes April 30.

Under the proposed budget, the assessment rate would remain at 73 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The assessment rate was lowered from the 75-cent cap two years ago.

Councilman Mike Rethman of Hickory Ridge village, who couldn't persuade his colleagues to require CA staffers to prepare budget scenarios showing 1.5-cent or 3-cent rate reductions, said the council will have deal with the issue sooner or later.

"Some want to spend more on services. Others want to give money back to the [assessment] payers," he said. "I'm more in line with the latter group. It will come. . . . It takes time for people to warm up to ideas."

Councilman Chuck Rees of Kings Contrivance village described the proposed budget as "business as usual" and said he advocates cutting the 73-cent rate. "I think we're overcharging residents by 25 percent or more," he said.

Mr. Rees contends that the association should base property charges on 40 percent of value, rather than 50 percent, and phase in increases in value over three years to bring it in line with government.

A rate reduction would require the council to "cut across the board and take a look at particular programs," said Mr. Rees, adding the option is unlikely this year unless "something happens politically" over the next two months.

At the 73-cent rate, residents pay the association $365 for every $100,000 of property value. For example, the owner of a $150,000 home would pay $547.50.

Chairwoman Karen Kuecker and Vice-Chairwoman Fran Wishnick said they received the budget yesterday and hadn't had time to review it.

Other budget highlights include:

* Package Plan rates for recreational facilities for new members would increase from $525 to $546 for families, $492 to $504 for two members and $384 to $390 for individuals. Early membership renewals would be discounted, with minimal increases in rates.

* New pool membership rates would be $240 for families and $165 for individuals, virtually unchanged.

* A 4 percent average merit raise for the association's 170 full-time employees.

* Half-price discounts for those who meet income eligibility standards would be expanded to all association summer camps.

Association staff members will present the proposed budget, which would take effect May 1, to the Columbia Council at 8 p.m. Dec. 30 at the Columbia Association Building. A public hearing is set for Jan. 25 at Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice village, and another is tentatively set for Jan. 27 at the same location.

The council plans to vote on the budget either Feb. 28 or March 1.

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