The Columbia Association's top officials got hefty cash bonuses on top of salaries that are higher than those of most county and state employees, and a local watchdog group wants to know why.
Salary and bonus information released last week by the homeowners association shows that President Maggie J. Brown received a $24,000 bonus for the fiscal year that ended April 30, plus her $183,973 salary, giving her nearly $208,000 plus benefits. Her pay for May 1, 2006, to April 30 this year was 17 percent more than in the previous year.
Brown's base salary rose to $190,000 on May 1, when she began a new two-year contract. She is due for at least a 3.5 percent increase for fiscal 2009, her final year in office.
Bonuses are determined at year's end, said Steven Sattler, communications director for the Columbia Association. He said he could not release current salaries for other top association officials without approval by the board of directors.
Brown's pay is significantly higher than that of County Executive Ken Ulman, who makes $149,000, Gov. Martin O'Malley, who makes $150,000, or the chiefs of staff of either.
The seven highest-ranking association officials received a cumulative $909,657 in salaries and $90,739 in bonuses for fiscal 2007.
Rafia Siddiqui, vice president and chief financial officer, got $171,527 in fiscal 2007, plus a $17,759 bonus.
Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia and a longtime gadfly and critic of association management, said the salaries are far too high. "They're into bonuses," Hekimian said. "We'd like to find out why."
He said county officials typically make less than Columbia Association officers, who manage an annual budget of about $50 million, compared with the county's $1.2 billion spending plan.
"It just seems out of line because of the way CA operates," Hekimian said. "This is a homeowners association."
Brown is out of town and could not be reached for comment. Sattler said the pay rates are based on studies done in 2001 by independent consultants and are not arbitrary.
"Columbia Association is leaving it to these specialists to learn about our business, to look at the market. It's expensive to live in Howard County," said Sattler, adding that the consultants are the ones determining who the association should compare themselves to.
"The results were that many full-time employees were too low, including officers," he said. "The board approved increases."
In April last year, the board hired another consultant to study the president's salary and benefits, which resulted in another recommendation for higher pay.
The board just approved hiring another consultant for a new compensation study, Sattler said, this time including benefits.
Tom O'Connor, who represents Dorsey's Search on the volunteer board that governs association policy, dismissed Hekimian's complaints that pay should more closely shadow government compensation.
"They're absolutely not comparable because we're not a government. Maggie didn't spend half a million dollars to get her job," he said, referring to the record campaign spending by Ulman.
"If we had a city manager function, we'd probably be paying a lot more," he added. "They're making a mountain out of a molehill. It's not a story."
O'Connor said the bonuses are a straight 10 percent for officers below the president, who gets a 15 percent bonus. The extra cash is a reward for several years of efforts to reduce the association's bond debt, he said.
The association manages open space, swimming pools and athletic facilities in Columbia, with much of its annual budget coming from taxlike liens paid by every property owner in the planned town.
Board President Barbara Russell was more circumspect than O'Connor, saying the board sets Brown's salary, and she decides what those beneath her receive.
Russell said the association is about to embark on a salary study to see how its pay stacks up against comparable bodies.
"Periodically we do that," she said, adding that the study was suggested by association staff.
"The whole salary issue has always been very difficult," Russell said, because the association is much larger and responsible for more than the typical homeowners' association. It's neither a private, profit-making company nor a full-fledged government.
However, she agreed with Hekimian that association pay can be examined in light of county and state government pay.
"I think it's a fair comparison. I've said all I'm going to say," she said, noting her position as board chairwoman.