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Council has 1st session on budget


In its first work session on the fiscal year 2002 budget, the Columbia Council gave preliminary approval yesterday for more than $5 million in capital projects but turned down some big-ticket items, including a request for a second outdoor pool for the village of River Hill.

The items approved in the seven-hour work session will be included in the proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins May 1. The entire budget proposal is expected to be presented to the council in December and voted on in February.

Also yesterday, the head of the council's finance committee revealed a few details related to the so-called Key property proposal. The council is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to annex the future Rouse Co. development in North Laurel.

The "pre-budget" work session opened with a warning from Rafia Siddiqui, the association's vice president for administrative services. As a nearly built-out community with aging infrastructure, Columbia is moving from a period of growth to maintenance, she said.

"There seems to be a developing trend that while the revenues are growing at a much slower rate, our expenses are actually growing at a rapid pace," she said. "I believe we need to continue a disciplined approach to controlling CA's expenses, while looking for opportunities to raise revenues."

But Siddiqui said the $5.04 million in capital budget expenses that the council voted to include in the proposed budget are in line with the Columbia Association's economic model, which expects $6.5 million in capital expenditures.

Two items that made the cut are intended to help the Columbia Association do a better job of maintaining open space, which residents and village officials have called unkempt this year.

The council decided that the budget proposal should include a $377,000 item to replace open-space maintenance equipment. The proposal also will include $175,000 to hire five full-time land maintenance workers.

Among the proposals rejected was a request to build a second outdoor pool for River Hill, which has high pool use but is one of the smallest of Columbia's 10 villages. Also rejected was a $40,000 item to plan and engineer a 3,000-square-foot athletic club addition, which would have been intended to encourage senior citizens to use the facility.

Rob Goldman, vice president for CA's sport and fitness division, argued that the club needed to be made more inviting to seniors as the community's population ages. The proposed project -- which would have cost $660,000 to build -- included an area for socializing and stretching plus exercise equipment suited to older adults.

The proposal failed in a 5-5 vote. Council Chairman Lanny Morrison, who voted against it, said he would like to see market research data indicating that the addition would boost senior use.

On the matter of the Key property, a development planned for 665 acres in North Laurel, Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge said the finance committee will present five proposals to the council Thursday. The council split 5-5 in a straw vote on Rouse's original annexation plan for the property. The proposal would fail in a tie vote.

Howard Research and Development, a Rouse affiliate, has asked CA to make the project a fourth neighborhood in Kings Contrivance. Under Rouse's original proposal, the association would provide a pool, parks, pathways and other recreational amenities. In return, the association could collect assessment revenue from about 2 million square feet of commercial space and about 1,200 apartments, townhouses and single-family homes.

Rouse recently sweetened the deal, reducing the number of amenities that would be built and offering CA about $2 million in interest-free financing for some of the amenities that CA would have to provide.

Coffman said one of the five proposals his committee will present is Rouse's sweetened offer. Another calls for Rouse to pay for all of the recreational amenities outright, Coffman said. The remaining three proposals lie somewhere in between, said Coffman, who declined to elaborate.

With the exception of its own offer, it is not known whether Rouse would agree with any of the proposals, Coffman said. Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse, has said the company would not pay for all of the amenities and then turn the project over to CA. Coffman said he wanted to see whether the council would agree to any of the proposals before presenting them to Rouse.

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