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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 3:20 pm | Fair 62º


Dale Francisco: Santa Barbara Golf Club Vote Was Historic, Necessary for City’s Future

Last week, after months of deliberation, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 4-3 to privatize greens maintenance at the Santa Barbara Golf Club. This was a historic and financially necessary move.

Dale Francisco
Dale Francisco

Ever since the municipal golf course opened at 3500 McCaw Ave. 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.

But like many other golf courses around the country, SBGC is under increased financial pressure. Rounds of play at the course have declined steadily over two decades. The main reasons are increased competition resulting from the boom in golf course construction of the 1990s and early 2000s, and fewer young people taking up the sport.

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

Fortunately, there was an obvious fix.

The 11 city employees — all members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — who do greens maintenance at SBGC have total compensation roughly twice that of maintenance staff at other golf courses in the area. Switching to private contractors to maintain the greens will save the SBGC anywhere from $200,000 to $425,000 per year. That’s a substantial fraction of the annual operating budget of roughly $2 million.

The March 10 vote shouldn’t have been so close. But the SEIU is the largest contributor to political candidates in California. The three council members who voted against privatization had each received substantial campaign contributions from SEIU — in the case of Cathy Murillo and Gregg Hart, their largest single contributions came from SEIU.

Were it not for my council colleagues — Harwood “Bendy” White, a fiscally conservative Democrat; Randy Rowse, a businessman and political independent; and Frank Hotchkiss, a Republican — we never could have made this sensible move. None of the four of us who voted to privatize had received SEIU money.

Also important were compromise and a bit of luck. Fortunately, eight of the 11 golf course greens maintenance employees are at or near retirement age. Out of a sense both of fairness and of what was politically possible, we guaranteed to find jobs, through attrition, in the city’s Parks & Recreation Department for any of those employees who want to continue to work for the city.

Voters who care about the future of Santa Barbara should realize that electing Cathy Murillo and Gregg Hart to City Council was a mistake. Both are affable in their public appearances, but their financial ties to the public employee unions render them incapable of making sound decisions for the taxpayers.

To preserve last week’s historic victory, this November we must elect only those city council candidates who put the welfare of the city first.

But for now I am thankful both to my colleagues on the City Council and to all the citizens who either wrote emails or came to speak at City Hall in support of privatization. Because of their efforts, we will preserve the golf course as a resource for our community for many years to come.

Dale Francisco is a Santa Barbara city councilman.

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