Council orders RV park changes


The Columbia Association's money-losing recreational vehicle storage park must break even in two years, the Columbia Council decided last week.

The council voted to stem the facility's operating losses at a budget work session Thursday night. The storage park is expected to remain in the red when long-term expenses related to the purchase of the land are factored in.

With a series of straw votes at the same meeting, the council also decided that the fiscal 2003 budget should provide for more property inspections, higher raises for village employees and continued towel service at its gyms.

The council is considering a budget plan that projects $47.9 million in income, $44.9 million in expenses, and a $3 million surplus intended for capital projects. The council also is weighing a proposed $7.8 million capital budget, from which it hopes to cut $550,000. It expects to finalize the spending plans by the end of this month.

The RV storage park serves about 140 residents and is projected to lose $120,000 in the current fiscal year, despite a waiting list of about 70 people.

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge said to have 33,000 houses subsidizing 140 "doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Most agreed that the storage facility needs to eliminate its operating losses, but members split over whether it should be done in two years or three. The council voted 7-3 in favor of the two-year deadline. Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice, Pearl Atkinson Stewart of Owen Brown and Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search were opposed, saying more time was needed to phase in higher parking rates.

Even after the operating losses are eliminated, the facility is expected to lose about $70,000 a year because of interest expenses and depreciation related to the purchase of the land.

Also at Thursday's meeting, the council voted to give $22,500 to two villages that had requested extra money to enforce property standards. Of that, $15,000 will go to Owen Brown and $7,500 Oakland Mills.

Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills said she receives many complaints about houses that are not kept up. Stewart said maintaining property, particularly in the older villages, was one of the most important functions of the homeowners association.

"If anything is core, it is covenant enforcement," she said.

Morrison suggested waiting to hear what the association's design and covenant enforcement committee has to say on the need for more inspections. But Coffman disagreed.

"I'm not waiting for another committee to say, 'Yeah, we need them,'" Coffman said, adding that the $22,500 "is probably some of the best money we can spend, especially in the older areas."

The council also voted to give village staff average raises of 2.7 percent, instead of the 2 percent called for in the original budget plan. At a public hearing last month, officials from most of Columbia's 10 villages had asked for 3.5 percent raises - the same percentage the draft originally gave Columbia Association employees. The raises for staff members were later lowered to 2.7 percent at the council's request.

One council member, Linda Odum of Long Reach, voted against the increase, which her village had not requested. Two other council members were not in the room at the time of the vote, Stewart and Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake.

The towel issue prompted the most animated and sustained debate of the 3 1/2 -hour meeting. Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness, made a final pitch for eliminating the health club perk, which he says costs $230,000 a year to provide.

The proposal has sparked strong opposition from patrons of the associations three gyms. The issue has been so contentious that association President Maggie J. Brown refused to take a position Thursday, despite several requests for guidance from O'Connor.

Brown would only say that she takes her own towel to the Columbia Swim Center, which does not provide the service.

With council members inclined to continue providing towels, Goldman suggested a compromise: continue to provide towels free to patrons who buy the most expensive "package plan plus" memberships, but increase the price of that plan by 3.5 percent instead of the 2 percent called for in the budget. Towels would be available to other members who paid an extra $7-a-month fee.

Several council members called that plan too complicated and said they would rather see Goldman find ways to provide the service more efficiently, either by using less bleach, installing automated detergent dispensers, outsourcing the laundry or stemming the theft of towels. Patrons steal about 3,000 towels a month from the gyms. Feldmark, however, said the council was micromanaging.

"I don't care about bleach or automated systems," he said. "I don't know and I'm never going to know because it's not my job. Let Rob do his job."

But Morrison said the decisions were properly before the council because they involved membership rates. The council voted unanimously to continue towel service and instructed Goldman to come up with some other way to save $230,000.

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