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Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 1:19 am | Fair 51º


Santa Barbara Council Postpones Decision on Golf Course Management Options

The council agrees to ask the city's finance committee to look at refinancing the golf fund's debt in the short term

After a host of public commenters praised the rolling greens of the city's municipal golf course, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday promised to preserve the course for public use, but put off a larger decision — whether to privatize any or all of the course's operations to save money — to a later date.

The course has been below its policy reserves since 2008 and could exhaust all of its fund reserves in the next 12 to 18 months, depending on play, according to Nancy Rapp, executive director of the city's Parks & Recreation Department.

On Tuesday, the council agreed to ask the city's finance committee to look at refinancing the golf fund's debt in the short term, with Councilman Frank Hotchkiss voting no.

The finance committee will also look at options, including privatizing the course, with Councilwoman Cathy Murillo and Councilman Gregg Hart voting against the motion.

The course opened in 1958 and has been a valuable resource to the community since, Rapp said.

The course does 62,500 rounds a year, many of which are played by young people, clubs and seniors.

Play hit a peak in the 1980s but has been declining since then, and has been relatively flat for the last five years.

"We're hopeful we've reached a point where we're going to be more consistent," Rapp said.

The course gets no general fund money, and is solely operated on fees charged to users. As a result, the course most likely will need a subsidy from the city's general fund of at least $100,000 a year to keep it in positive financial territory.

About 13 full-time positions are assigned to the course, 11 of which are dedicated to course maintenance.  

Because 50 percent of the course's expenditures go toward salaries and benefits, the city will explore whether to contract out maintenance, golf operations, food and beverage costs, or some variation of any of those for cost savings.

The decision is looming now because several contracts, like that of the course's pro shop, will be up for renewal soon, and the council's decision would have an impact on that request for bids.

"We're asking for a decision by June 2015 whether you want to make changes or not," Rapp said. "This is our best window of opportunity."

Compared to other courses in the region, the course is a "strong performer," Rapp said, and increasing their marketing, upping fees, and reducing staffing have all been part of the approach in the past years to bump up revenue

The city could restructure the $1.3 million in golf course debt, and if the general fund forgave the debt, "the picture is a little better, but still is not the solution" if play declines, she said "This is not a decision we have to have tonight, but it does drive how we move forward."

Many public speakers came out to support the course, including Maureen Masson, who serves on the city's Golf Advisory Committee, and has been playing on the course since it opened in the 1950s.

Masson said changes to the course made by the creeks department in recent years made traversing the course "a pain" and that revenues have never recovered since that time. Nevertheless, Masson called the course a treasure "that should be saved, maintained and never given up."

Leroy Villa, who also played the course the first year it was open, was one of several people along with Masson that complained about city creeks remodeling the course, and called on that department to subsidize the course from their budget.

Several speakers said the course's finances aren't that bad and could be solved, no matter which option is chosen for management.

"It's a unique place. … It's one of the few places where people of all ages come together," said Dominic Namnath, who also serves on the Golf Advisory Committee.

Cynthia Goena of SEIU 620 urged the council to wait on a decision until the city's living wage committee and golf advisory committees could weigh in.

She said quality of maintenance of the course could decline if privatized and might not result in any real savings.

Councilman Dale Francisco said the council didn't have to make a decision Tuesday night, but said he felt strongly that the fund needed to be sustainable.  

"We're paying twice as much for maintenance as any other golf course in the area," he said. "Somehow we have to come up with a way that preserves the value of the golf course and manages to make the golf course pay for itself because I don't think we want to burden the general fund."

Councilwoman Murillo, who admitted she's only ever played miniature golf, commended the passion of golfers that came out to speak in favor of the course.

Murillo said she supported keeping the jobs union and managed by the city.

"Doesn't everyone want a good paying job and benefits and retirement? I have no shame in supporting that," she said. "I hope we can find a way to be creative and not change the model."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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