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Debate over Sister City typifies budget battle


The Columbia Association's (CA) $49,000 Sister City program barely registers a blip in the nonprofit organization's budget, but it symbolized the Columbia Council's often frustrating struggle over reining in spending last week.

The heavily subsidized program is considered by some a luxury and by others an important cultural benefit. Council members, who serve as the board of directors for the private homeowners' association, debated at length whether to reduce funding for the program before deciding they didn't have a firm enough grasp of its scope and cost breakdown to make any changes.

"We need to take a leadership role up front and evaluate programs before the budget discussion," Councilman Gary Glisan lamented during a debate at a work session just four days before the council adopted the association's $33.2 million 1995-1996 operating budget last Monday.

"We're taking too much time on a little line item and not enough time on the whole budget, and we're running out of time," he said.

Several council members repeated that refrain -- too little time, not enough information -- as they worked a tight schedule leading to Monday's budget adoption. The lament echoed council members' comments last year, when the council -- unable to gauge potential effects of last-minute cost-cutting proposals -- opted not to cut the budget submitted by CA staff.

But this year, the elected, 10-member council responded to louder pleas from residents and Columbia village boards to slow spending and reduce debt. The council deferred or eliminated $844,000, or 14 percent, from the CA staff's proposed $6 million capital budget and trimmed $194,000, or less than 1 percent, from the staff's proposed operating budget.

In doing so, the council ordered a 0.5 percent across-the-board spending cut and slightly reduced increases in average merit raises for CA employees and village association grants. Those ,, actions helped increase CA's operating surplus to $2.6 million, which will go toward capital projects to keep debt down.

"I think the council took a step in the direction of assuming control of the budget," Councilwoman Norma Rose of Wilde Lake Village, who had urged further cuts, said afterward.

"I was euphoric," Councilman Chuck Rees of Kings Contrivance Village said. "These are big steps, but only big steps for an infant. There's so much more that needs to be done."

However, other council members contended that reducing raises would harm CA employee morale. They also expressed discomfort at ordering association managers at such a late stage to make nearly $100,000 in cuts with little guidance.

At no time was the budget tug-of-war more evident than during debate on Sister City, which makes up less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the budget -- though its costs exceed its income by 10 times.

Ms. Rose, citing the program as a glaring example of misplaced priorities and ill-defined goals, suggested nearly halving the cost by trimming administration, entertainment and bus transportation. She suggested shifting more responsibilities from CA staff to volunteer supporters and participating families.

The student exchange program with cities in France and Spain has about 30 Howard County participants annually. The program ranked last in priorities in CA's own 1992 survey of Columbia residents.

Yet Sister City has avid supporters in the community and on the council, who say the program touches people beyond its participants and helps make Columbia unique. They advocate broadening the program to include businesses, colleges and adults.

"I'm saddened by the amount of time expended on a relatively small budget item that has tremendous paybacks," said Robert Russell, a member of the Sister City Advisory Committee.

"It's so appropriate for CA to expend money on that because it should be under their wing."

But council members said they were uncertain whether Sister City should be run as a simple student exchange or a broader cultural program. They rejected a proposal to hold in abeyance some funding for the program until a clear-cut policy is established, voting instead for a full allocation with the condition that the program be evaluated soon.

"We are in essence deferring a lot of budget decisions," said Councilman Michael Rethman at the voting session. "We have to find a way to do our work more efficiently."

In preparing for next year's round of budget deliberations, the council intends to review detailed information not only for Sister City, but every CA program to determine goals, how money is spent and who is served, several council members say. Only then will the council be able to make sound decisions on cuts, they say.

In considering those decisions, the council struggles with a philosophical question: To what degree should Columbia residents subsidize the many programs and facilities that operate at a deficit, but make Columbia an attractive place to live?

For example, in the fiscal 1996 budget beginning May 1, the council expanded CA's discount program for summer camps by providing a 75 percent rate reduction for income-eligible families. That discount will cost CA about $7,000.

"A quality item to me with a young child might not be a quality item to another person," said Council Chairwoman Karen A. Kuecker of Owen Brown Village. "We did our best to balance conflicting needs. We tried to be fair and also look at things CA should not be doing."

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