For the past two years, Hickory Ridge village board members have received discounts on swimming, tennis, children's summer camp and other Columbia Association activities, a perk that some critics say taints the volunteer positions.
Eight of the nine board members who served during the past two fiscal years took advantage of a policy that let them earn $15 in credit for each meeting attended -- up to a maximum of $300 per year.
Those credits can be applied to Columbia Association recreational facility memberships and programs. Since 1992, board members have received $2,355 in reimbursements toward those expenses.
The policy was to have expired in May, but the board voted in April to extend it indefinitely. None of Columbia's nine other community associations provides similar reimbursements.
"It's a relatively small token that is reasonable to offer village board members for their time, expertise and effort," said Michael Rethman, a Columbia Council member who advocated adopting the policy while he was chairman of the Hickory Ridge village board in 1991-1992. "I'd encourage other village boards to do it."
But several past and current members of other village boards say the policy sets a bad precedent and diminishes Columbia's tradition of volunteer community service.
"To me, it opens the door to wanting financial reimbursement to go to meetings twice a month and all the other things," said Wanda Hurt, an Owen Brown village board member. "The idea is that this is a free thing. You do this out of a spirit of community service, not out of a spirit of what you can get back."
The Columbia Council -- whose members receive free recreational memberships, or Package Plans -- oversees the recreational facilities, community services and open space maintenance provided by the association. The 10 village boards act as advocacy bodies for residents and enforce property covenants.
The five members on the 1993-1994 Hickory Ridge board were reimbursed between $255 and $300 each for Package Plan memberships, which permit individuals or families to use Columbia's fitness clubs, swimming pools, tennis clubs and ice rink. Total costs of the memberships ranged from about $400 to $850, depending on the category.
The reimbursement policy was passed in December 1991. Only two people called the village office to comment after it was advertised. It took effect after the April 1992 elections.
The $1,410 in reimbursements to Hickory Ridge board members in 1993-1994 made up 1.1 percent of the village's $130,000 budget. The village received a $90,400 grant from the Columbia Association, which generates about half of its revenue from an annual assessment of Columbia property owners.
The 1992-1993 board received $945 in reimbursements for Columbia Association recreational memberships and a nature camp.
According to Columbia's founding documents, which govern the nonprofit village associations, each village association is "not formed for [monetary] gain or profit, direct or indirect, to itself or its members," and is to be "operated exclusively for the . . . common good . . ." of village residents.
Columbia village bylaws prohibit compensation for board members. However, Hickory Ridge village considers credits accrued toward Columbia Association programs a reimbursable expense, along with other items such as mileage, baby-sitting and event fees.
Members of the Hickory Ridge board defend the policy, even though no other village board has followed Hickory Ridge's example.
"There are many policies where village boards don't do the same thing. It's not right or wrong," said Philip Berman, Hickory Ridge village board chairman for 1994-1995.
James Loesch, the 1993-1994 Hickory Ridge village board chairman who accrued $300 toward a recreational membership, said the credits are an "additional inducement" similar to rewards offered by other volunteer organizations. "If you participate, it's worth some money," he said.
John E. Conlon, chairman of the Columbia Council's Financial Advisory Committee, said he sees nothing wrong with the Hickory Ridge policy, as long as it doesn't "snowball."
But David Hatch, an Oakland Mills village board member, said such incentives aren't necessary.
"I think the internal rewards for working on the village board have been very great -- the reward of a job well done and fighting a good struggle," he said. "I certainly wouldn't like to see [the Hickory Ridge policy] spread."
Lewis Lorton, a Kings Contrivance village board member, said it seems inappropriate to him for village board members to be rewarded for attendance. "It seems rather juvenile, like giving stars," he said.
Critics of the reimbursements also question whether the policy has been effective in achieving its purposes.
The policy is intended to attract more residents to run for village board, say current and former Hickory Ridge board members. However, only four candidates ran for five board positions in April's election.
The policy's supporters say it also encourages board members who otherwise might not join Columbia Association programs to enroll. The goal is to allow board members more insight into association operations so they can become more effective advocates, they say.
However, several board members who accumulated credits had recreational memberships before the policy was adopted.
And the policy has been questioned by critics who say the money could be better spent.
Laura Waters, a former Harper's Choice village board member, said the money spent toward credits for the programs -- a maximum of $1,500 for five board members -- would be better used to subsidize pool memberships or camp fees for young people whose families can't afford them, even with the association's low-income discount.
But Mr. Berman, a board member since 1988, said the total of $555 he has received in reimbursements in two years toward about $1,000 in recreational membership expenses was nominal relation to hours spent on board business.
He also said the reimbursements haven't influenced his decisions to run for re-election or to continue his recreational membership, which he acquired before the reimbursement policy was adopted.
"I'm at an income level where $400 or $500 is not going to break my family," Mr. Berman said.
HICKORY RIDGE REIMBURSEMENTS
Reimbursements* to Hickory Ridge village board members for
Columbia Association (CA) programs:
Board member .. .. Reimbursement .. .. .. .. .. CA Program
Michael Rethman .. .. .. $285 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan**
Philip Berman .. .. .. .. 285 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan
Robert Hixson .. .. .. .. 300 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan
Rita Siprak-Weill .. .. .. 75 .. .. .. .. .. .. Nature Camp
Roger Lawson .. .. .. .. .. 0 .. .. .. .. .. .. ------
TOTAL .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 945 .. .. .. .. .. ..
Philip Berman .. .. .. .. 270 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan
Miles Coffman .. .. .. .. 285 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan
Linda Hitzelberger .. .. 300 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan;
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. swim team dues
Raissa Kirk .. .. .. .. 255 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan
James Loesch .. .. .. .. 300 .. .. .. .. .. .. Package Plan
TOTAL .. .. .. .. .. .. 1,410
Hickory Ridge village board members can accumulate $15 in credit for each meeting they attend, up to $300 annually, to apply toward a Columbia Association recreational membership, program or service.
Package Plan is a membership to Columbia's array of recreational facilities. Memberships range from about $400 to $1,100, depending on options.