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CA budget hearing a quiet affair


A small group of Columbia residents and officials urged a broad range of actions at the Columbia Association's annual budget hearing last night. Requests varied from an increase in support for the arts and nonprofit groups to a re-examination of golf course design plans.

About 25 residents attended the hearing at Kahler Hall on the proposed $31.8 million budget for the 1995 fiscal year that begins May 1.

Last night's attendance was a far cry from the past two years when hundreds of vocal residents packed the halls to debate controversial issues, such as a reduction in the assessment rate and the $5.2 million Fairway Hills Golf Course.

Most of those who spoke last night represented Columbia village boards, association recreational committees or arts and nonprofit organizations.

The Columbia Council, the association's board of directors, has proposed keeping the annual property charge, or assessment rate, at 73 cents per $100 of assessed value.

James Oremland, chairman of the Oakland Mills village board, asked the council to examine saving money by privatizing services such as the Horse Center or the Arts Center. Certain services used by only a small percentage of residents are operating at "great losses" and are scheduled for renovation and upgrading projects, he said.

James Loesch, a Hickory Ridge village board member, agreed that private companies should be considered for some services, such as food sales at swimming pools.

"As an association, the staff does a first-class job," he said. "However, no one organization can be good at everything. Where an entity presents itself, we should explore it."

The association manages Columbia's recreational facilities, community programs and buildings, and open space lands.

A representative from County Councilman Paul Farragut's office and the director of the Howard County Arts Council both urged the association to join a partnership with local government, private industry and nonprofit groups to finance the conversion of the Wilde Lake High School auditorium into a regional performing arts center.

"To see the most ambitious works, you have to go to Washington or Baltimore because they don't fit on a stage in Columbia," said Mary Toth, executive director of the arts council.

Several speakers also asked the council to increase support for the Columbia Festival of the Arts program and the Columbia Foundation, an organization that makes grants to county nonprofit groups working on educational, cultural and social issues.

Tom and Ginger Scott, Wilde Lake village residents who are battling the imminent construction of the new 18-hole golf course adjacent to their property, challenged the council to verify that plans for the course include adequate buffers where pesticides and fertilizers won't be applied.

Village board members from River Hill and Long Reach thanked the council for including about $2.1 million in the $5.8 million capital budget to build new swimming pools in their areas.

Several speakers mentioned personnel costs and purchasing contracts as areas where the association could save money by searching for efficiencies.

"We can't help but notice that CA's overall personnel costs keep going up at an alarming rate," said Alex Hekimian, president of Alliance for a Better Columbia, a citizens advocacy group. He noted that two divisions showed increases of between 11 percent and 16 percent over last year.

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