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Budget concerns raised at a CA public hearing

The Baltimore Sun

Columbia village board members and residents praised aspects of Columbia Association's proposed budgets that include money for a new ballroom floor for Kahler Hall, pool enhancements and funding for a watershed program.

But they also demanded to know why the association's 2009 budgeted expenses of $56.4 million include $355,000 for Splashdown repairs, operating expenses and capital expenditures that outstrip income, and several "placeholders" - line items that are estimates for future projects - that have not been vetted with the public.

The comments came during a public hearing Wednesday. Budgeted income for 2009 is $59.5 million. Budgeted income for 2010 is $61.6 million, with budgeted expenses of $57.74 million, according to Columbia Association documents. The proposed capital budget is $11.5 million for fiscal 2009 and $15.4 million for 2010.

"We realize that there is a temptation to force-fit as much of everyone's wish list into a budget as possible," said Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia. "But, at a time when we are on the verge of a recession, people are losing their jobs, and companies and people are being much more careful about their spending, we look to the CA Board to be sensitive to these economic conditions."

Hekimian suggested reducing the cap on reassessment increases to 2 percent in fiscal 2009 and to 1 percent in 2010, rather than using the 3 percent identified in the proposed budgets that use an annual property charge rate of 68 cents.

Hekimian noted that the Columbia Association could afford to reduce the cap given that it has taken in much more revenue from its annual charge than approved budgets assumed for FY06, FY07 and FY08, and since the excess annual charge revenues come as the cap on assessments have tightened.

"Clearly, there is room to give Columbia's homeowners a further break during these difficult economic times," he told the audience.

The Alliance for a Better Columbia has raised questions previously about the use of placeholders when studies of proposed work have not been done and when the public has not weighed in.

"What's the point of putting a fictional figure in the capital budget for the Hobbit's Glen golf course dam repairs when the results of the engineering work and cost estimates are not yet available," he asked. "Why put in a placeholder for replacing the Town Center bell tower when engineering and design haven't even started?"

He urged that those numbers, along with one for a proposed new headquarters, be deleted from the proposed budget. The proposed capital budget includes a $3.6 million line item for a two-story, 30,000-square-foot headquarters building that is expected to cost $11 million.

The Columbia Association's current lease for 20,000 square feet on the first and second floors of the Wincopin Circle building extends through August 2010, said association President Maggie J. Brown. The board would like to extend that for three years, she has said.

"We don't believe it makes a lot of sense for CA to rent when it could build," said Andy Stack, a member of the Owen Brown Village Board.

The association owns property adjacent to Toby's Dinner Theatre and Little Patuxent Parkway, by Merriweather Post Pavilion, that is the proposed site of its new headquarters.

Anthony M. Mazzarella, chairman of the Aquatics Advisory Committee, said his group supported the combined $1.1 million in the capital budgets for expenditures to improve and maintain water, ventilation and air quality at the Swim Center's three pools but consider that amount expensive in the absence of a comprehensive plan to replace the facility.

He noted that $2 million was spent six years ago to extend the Swim Center's life for another 10 years.

"The facility continues to crumble, staff continues to scramble to manage the unending repairs and meet the increasing demands for indoor pool time, and perhaps most importantly, the customer continues to see an erosion in the quality of their experiences at the Swim Center," he said. "All of this goes on with no discussion or planning for a new facility."

He also criticized a proposal to spend $355,000 to repair Splashdown saying that attendance at the facility continues to decline and that most parties there are now booked by people who do not belong to the association.

The third-largest outdoor water park in the country is under construction in Anne Arundel County, near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, with state-of-the-art water features, he said.

"In short, the Swim Center has no hope of competing with the new facility," he said. "Rather than invest in the nostalgia of Splashdown, the Aquatics Advisory Committee believes it would be more appropriate to utilize our limited resources to begin planning a new indoor aquatic facility that can better meet the growing needs and demands of the community."

Several regular swimmers echoed Mazzarella's concerns.

"The whole idea of investing more money into a dying facility is ridiculous," said swimmer Ari Eisner.

Future meetings on the budget process include: Board work sessions Thursday, Feb. 6 and Feb. 14 (if necessary) that the public is allowed to attend. A Planning and Strategy Committee meeting is set for Feb. 14 to formulate its recommendation for the board. On Feb. 27, a final discussion is planned by the board and a vote is scheduled to approve the fiscal 2009 budget and to conditionally approve the fiscal 2010 budget. If additional time is needed, the final discussion and vote could be continued and take place Feb. 28.


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