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Debate over Columbia's budget goes to the wire


Just days before the Columbia Council is set to adopt the Columbia Association's $32 million operating budget, members are arguing about how much control they should exercise over the nonprofit corporation that runs the unincorporated city.

Even as council critics call for greater scrutiny and a tighter rein on spending, a working majority of the 10-member panel appears willing to accept virtually intact the spending plan prepared by the association's top managers.

Councilwoman Norma Rose said before a Thursday night work session -- five days before scheduled adoption of the fiscal 1995 spending plan -- she was concerned that the council may not have enough time to adequately review the operating budget and $5.8 million in proposed capital spending.

"We're not setting policy if we don't really deliberate," she said.

Some council members, however, said they aren't familiar enough with details to order broad spending reductions. Association managers who are responsible for daily operations should determine where to make cuts, they said.

"This is a big philosophical thing with me," said council Chairwoman Karen A. Kuecker. "I feel confident I know enough about the budget, as much as I want. Some council members want to know more. That might be construed by some as micro-management. There's a fine line between how much you need to know and how much you think you need to know."

The elected council serves as the board of directors for the association, which assesses Columbia property owners annually. The current property charge is 73 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Councilman Mike Rethman proposed cutting the association's proposed $1.1 million grant to Columbia's 10 independent villages by about 1 percent to match the rate of inflation, but other council members said it was too late because village boards have already formed their budgets.

Ms. Rose, questioning a 7.7 percent increase in personnel costs, called for cutting the proposed $10.9 million personnel budget by $325,000. She also proposed cutting $100,000 from the $2.2 million operating supply budget, which would increase 7 percent over this year. Neither amendment was approved.

Ms. Rose said that the budget should be broken down in greater detail and that the council should require the association to find savings in broad categories. She also criticized the association's purchasing policies.

While a council majority seemed reluctant to require broad cuts, members agreed with Mr. Rethman's proposal to reduce average merit raises for association employees from 4 percent to 3 percent, to match the rate of inflation.

Several members said the council should take a more active role in reviewing how the villages spend more than $1 million in grants from the association and determining how much each village should be granted. Now, grants are based on a formula and increase automatically.

A February 1993 report by an independent budget committee appointed by the council said the council should review the growing village budgets to provide checks and balances. "We can't emphasize enough how much this area of the budget needs to have some controls," the report said.

Ms. Rose proposed cutting money from programs that serve relatively few residents and spending more to widen participation of lower-income children in Columbia's summer camps. For example, she said the Sister City Program -- a student exchange with cities in Spain and France -- should be cut from $40,000 to $25,000 because the program served only 16 students last year and was ranked as a low priority by residents in a council survey.

Several council members advocated more closely monitoring the spending of the Columbia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that makes grants to charitable and community groups and receives $100,000 in association grant money.

The council plans a third and final work session at 7 p.m. tomorrow night and has scheduled a vote on the budget Tuesday night.

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