Members of the Columbia Association council have been working almost nonstop in recent months on the question of where their organization should focus its energies in coming years. Now they have some answers from Columbia residents.
Columbians want the giant homeowners' association to do more to help older adults, streamline its governance systems and improve public safety within Howard County, according to a survey conducted this month as part of the association's strategic planning process.
Council members heard some of the survey's initial findings about resident priorities at its meeting Thursday. Council members will use these results and association staff reports at its next meeting to begin deciding the organization's future direction.
Facilitators from Mason Dixon Polling & Research talked to Columbia residents at four town meetings in recent weeks and developed a list of ideas on how future programs might fit the changing needs of the community, advocate for Columbia in the greater community, maintain Columbia's founding vision and improve its governance.
Mason Dixon then surveyed 800 Columbia adults, asking them how they ranked 50 of those topics as priorities.
About 47 percent of those polled were association members, said Brad Coker, the company's managing director. Most believed that things in Columbia were on the right track and that the quality of services provided by the Columbia Association were excellent or pretty good - findings consistent with surveys in the recent past.
Most of those polled listed creating special rates for financially needy older residents, helping older residents maintain their residences and comply with the covenants, and improving transportation for seniors as high priorities - 85, 84 and 83 percent respectively.
A big gap of understanding of Columbia's philosophy exists between older and younger people within the community, Coker said. Approximately 34 percent of the survey population had lived in Columbia for less than 10 years, 32 percent were residents for 10 to 19 years and 33 percent had lived there more than 20 years.
"The older people understand it, embrace it," he said. "Younger people ... didn't move here for the same reasons."
Encouraging voluntarism, which 82 percent polled listed as a priority, would help promote the mission, Coker said.
Although governance reforms ranked high among priorities, including development of a multi-year budget for the Columbia Association (79 percent) and staggered, equal-length terms for Columbia Council members (81 percent), he described them as a "red herring."
It became clear during the town meetings that not all residents were familiar with Columbia's governing system, Coker said.
"Governance confuses people," he said. "If the tennis bubble collapses in a snowstorm, someone's going to blame governance."
There was a disparity between whites and African-Americans in the survey about the need to reach out to minorities in Columbia's increasingly multicultural community, Coker said. African-Americans generally saw that as a greater need, he said.
Improved public safety and transportation links between Baltimore and Washington were important concerns for everyone, as was establishment of a committee to advise the association on teen issues.
A final report on the town meetings and survey will be ready next month, Coker said.
The Columbia Association's third-quarter financial report, which was reviewed at Thursday's meeting, indicated that the winter's severe weather would negatively affect some divisions.
"Overall, the Columbia Association is ahead of budget," said Chick Rhodehamel, vice president for open-space management, who gave the report to the board. Income for the first nine months of the year was $10.7 million, he said, with an increase of net assets of $4.7 million projected by the end of the fiscal year. Total income and expenditures for all departments should be ahead of budget or short by less than 5 percent, he said.
Higher membership revenue and savings in other areas leave the sports and fitness division with $392,000 more revenue than budgeted, said Rob Goldman, division vice president. Four of its facilities fell short of budget.
Extreme weather - very hot last summer and very snowy last winter - limited play at Fairway Hills and Hobbit's Glen golf clubs, as did the damaged greens at Hobbit's Glen.
Councilman Joshua Feldman of Wilde Lake asked whether next year's budget took into account "that we can't predict the weather."
Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown agreed, asking if some contingency could be incorporated to account for unusual events.
Goldman said it was a tough decision. "If you'd like to direct us to have a lower bottom line ... to ensure we can make budget, we'd be happy to do that," he said.
Closing Hobbit's Glen is expected to have a positive effect on play at Fairway Hills, he said.
Although the SkatePark had lower than expected attendance, new ramps and jumps to be completed in the early summer should improve turnout, Goldman said. Increased marketing is planned to attract more patrons to the SportsPark.
Operating expenses of the Open Space Management Division are about $69,000 less than budgeted for this quarter, but because of the severe winter weather, the department will probably end the year slightly over budget, Rhodehamel said.
The homeowners association spent "three times over our costs normally budgeted for snow," he pointed out.