The Columbia Council tentatively decided last night to freeze $132,000 in capital funds for the city's horse center -- rather than close it or lease it -- pending a comprehensive, outside review of the facility.
The study, which could cost $25,000, would include a determination of the facility's selling price and the feasibility of selling it -- possibly to the county -- as well as an evaluation of how the center might operate more efficiently.
The center, an 88-acre site off Gorman Road, has come under the 10-member council's scrutiny in the past year because of financial losses and sparse residential usage. Less than 1 percent of Columbia's 87,000 residents use it, and it has lost an estimated $1.5 million since 1986.
In a separate, nonbinding vote, three council members -- Tom Forno of Harper's Choice, Earl Jones of Oakland Mills and Vince Marando of Wilde Lake -- voted to delete all the capital funds and close the facility altogether.
The votes will have to be recast next week when the council approves the final version of the Columbia Association's fiscal year 2001 budget.
"It has fallen apart," Forno, who visited the center last week, told the council. "We don't know how to run a horse center, and we ought to close it down."
Said Jones: "This facility is losing money. We do not seem to have the expertise to manage [it] and to be sure that the bottom line changes."
Nearly all of the Columbia Association's dozens of programs and facilities lose money; the debate over the horse center is, in part, about how much is too much.
Adam Rich, the council representative from River Hill, said the issue is whether the level of subsidy the association provides for the center is appropriate.
"We are not losing money on the horse center," he said. "We are choosing to spend it."
Kirk Halpin, the council representative from Kings Contrivance, said an independent study would help determine the center's long-term future.
"I don't have enough information to fully support the horse center, and I don't have enough information right now to fully cut the program," he said this week.
Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for the sport and fitness division, recently released a revised set of financial projections for the horse center that showed it losing $212,000 in the coming fiscal year, $48,000 more than was forecast in December.
Despite the increase in projected losses, he recommended that the association continue to run the facility -- which offers lessons, shows, camps and therapeutic riding for the disabled -- rather than close it, lease it or use the property for something else.
Goldman said closing the horse center based on financial performance would set a precedent that might lead to the elimination of other facilities and programs. He has been asked by association President Deborah O. McCarty to prepare a set of criteria the council could use in determining whether a facility should be closed.
Marando voted to shut the center, despite "threats" he said he received from some residents to mobilize against him in the next election.
"I don't have the confidence in the staff," he said. "They were the 'experts' nine months ago."
Because of recent turmoil at the center, Goldman recently prepared a revised capital budget that includes $117,000 in expenditures. Among them:
$35,000 for lighting.
$30,000 for fences.
$20,000 for additional lesson horses.
$15,000 for improvements to the paddocks.
$5,000 each for a new sound system and paving in the barn.
"I think that the horse center needs a lot of improvements, both financially and possibly the way it's run," Rich said this week, "but that doesn't mean you throw the baby out with the bath water."