Council seeks ideas tonight for spending in '96 Going to public early on budget is departure


In a change from its past practice, the Columbia Council wants residents to present ideas tonight for the Columbia Association's next budget year before preparing a draft spending plan.

"When the budget is already struck, it's hard to try to move money around," said Karen A. Kuecker, chairwoman of the council, an elected 10-member board that directs the nonprofit association. "If something looks like a good idea, we may want to include it before the budget is developed totally."

The council typically has one public budget hearing in late January, leaving a month to modify and adopt draft operating and capital budgets prepared by association staff. Some Columbia residents and council members have criticized the process, saying the board had too little time to incorporate proposed changes and was not familiar with details of association programs.

To improve its budgeting, the council has adopted a new policy of reviewing for efficiency as many association programs as possible before it approves the fiscal 1997 budget.

The association imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to pay for recreational facilities, community programs and parkland maintenance. This year, it has a $33.2 million operating budget and a $5.1 million capital budget.

The organization generates half its operating income from the levy. The rest comes from recreational memberships and service fees. Its 1996-1997 spending plan will take effect May 1.

Several village associations, which operate with Columbia Association grants, are expected to present capital project wish lists and at least one citizens group plans to offer suggestions at the meeting at 8 p.m. today at the Columbia Association Building in Town Center.

While several community activists commended the council's intent, they expressed concern that residents had not been adequately notified about the event.

"That's one of the problems the Columbia Council has had -- communication with the public," said Wanda Hurt, Owen Brown Village Board chairwoman. "They have communication with the village boards, but not with the general public. It's something they really need to improve."

Alex Hekimian, president of the watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, also questioned whether the council really wants to hear from residents, adding that his group -- which testifies annually on the budget -- wasn't notified of the meeting and hasn't discussed ideas.

Cecilia Januszskiewicz, Long Reach Village Board chairwoman, said her board wasn't aware of the meeting and plans no presentation. But the board has expressed concern about a proposed recreational facility in the new River Hill village, expected to cost $5 million, because it might cater largely to non-Columbia residents in western Howard County, she said.

Columbians for Howard County, a newly formed citizen group, also has concerns about the proposed River Hill project, but for a different reason, said co-founder Fran Wishnick, a former council member.

She said paying off debt for such a facility might limit options for other programs "necessary for Columbia," such as improved enforcement of property maintenance guidelines and an increased role in public safety and senior citizen issues.

"We're trying to get CA to move somewhat away from the business approach to a better ratio of business and community-oriented programs," Ms. Wishnick said.

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