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Dale Francisco: City Council Can Save Santa Barbara Golf Club, But Will We Take the Shot?

The two biggest fiscal problems facing Santa Barbara — crumbling infrastructure and ever increasing payments to the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) — are closely related.

Dale Francisco
Dale Francisco

On March 10, City Council members will be faced with a clear choice. Each council member’s vote will tell you whether that individual wants to solve these fiscal problems — or make them worse.

The choice? How to fund the Santa Barbara Golf Club (SBGC), our municipal golf course at 3500 McCaw Ave.

Ever since the SBGC opened in 1958, it has run as an “enterprise fund.” This means that all of the capital and operations costs are paid by fees from the golfers who use the course, not by taxes on the community at large.

This fiscal model has served the SBGC well for decades. But now, due to forces largely outside its control, the SBGC’s financial future is threatened.

The SBGC had its peak of popularity in 1987, when an astonishing 112,000 rounds of golf were played. Today that number is down to about 62,000 annually.

Two main factors are responsible for the decrease: First, a slow but steadily declining interest in the sport, and second, competition resulting from the boom in golf course construction of the 1990s.

The resulting loss of revenue has forced the SBGC to dip into its fiscal reserves to cover expenses. If this continues, the reserves — meant to fund capital improvements — will be exhausted by 2017. Then the golf course will be faced with either closing or coming to the taxpayers for subsidies.

Those dire outcomes can be avoided. There is a simple, fiscally responsible solution that will assure the SBGC’s success for many years to come. That solution is to use private contractors rather than city workers to maintain the greens. That one change will save the SBGC anywhere from $200,000 to $425,000 per year, a substantial fraction of the annual operating expenses of roughly $1.8 million.

94 percent of municipal golf courses in Southern California use private contractors for greens maintenance. The reason is simple economics. The SBGC, with its city workforce, pays roughly twice as much for greens maintenance as any other golf course in the tricounties.

According to the golfers with whom I’ve spoken, the quality of maintenance at SBGC is excellent. The 11 city employees responsible for greens maintenance do an outstanding job. The problem is not with the quality of work, but with its cost. SBGC cannot continue to pay twice as much for greens maintenance as other golf courses and stay in business.

Eight of those 11 city employees are at or near retirement age. If we move to private contracting, there will be other positions through attrition for any employees who wish to continue working for the city. So the change to private contracting can be done without existing employees losing their jobs, and it will allow the golf course to continue to serve the community without taxpayer subsidy.

Private contracting for greens maintenance is the obvious and only solution to the SBGC’s financial problems, but private contracting has been fought at every step by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the city’s largest employee union, and by the SEIU’s supporters on the City Council.

In California, the SEIU is the largest single contributor to political candidates’ campaigns. This money has bought it tremendous influence, both in Sacramento and in local government. Here in Santa Barbara, Council members Gregg Hart and Cathy Murillo received their largest single election campaign contributions from the SEIU — $10,000 for Murillo in 2011 and $5,000 for Hart in 2013.

Council members Hart and Murillo have tried to take any discussion of private contracting off the table, but fortunately so far they’ve been outvoted. They’ve proposed two Band-Aid alternatives: Refinancing the SBGC’s debt (which would reduce payments in the short term, but would ultimately cost the golf course more money), and improved marketing (which of course should be done, but which won’t close the gap between operating expenses and revenue).

Please urge your council members to vote for private contracting of greens maintenance, so that a golf course that has provided so much pleasure to so many people over the years will continue to be available to our community.

Dale Francisco is a Santa Barbara city councilman.

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