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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 6:39 am | Fair 41º


Santa Barbara Council Asked to Take a Swing at Budget Deficit for Municipal Golf Course

The city's three-member Finance Committee disagrees over how to bring the operations back into the black

Santa Barbara officials are trying figure out how to bring the finances for Santa Barbara's Municipal Golf Course's back up to par.

The city's three-member Finance Committee met Tuesday to discuss the course's ongoing budget deficit, and decided to ask the full Santa Barbara City Council to weigh in.

Finance Committee members — Councilmen Gregg Hart, Bendy White and Dale Francisco — differed over how to bring the operations back into the black, but all agreed the course was an asset to the community.

The committee voted 2-1, with Hart dissenting, to send the item before council next month.

Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation Director Nancy Rapp told the committee the course has seen fewer people playing, and those who do come play less frequently.

The course operates on a budget of roughly $2 million a year, about 80 percent of which comes from greens fees paid by golfers.

Play has generally declined 3 to 5 percent per year, and is down from over 100,000 rounds in 1990 to 62,500 rounds during the current fiscal year.

The course has been below its policy reserves since 2008, and could exhaust all fund reserves in the next 12 to 18 months, depending on how many people play during that time, Rapp said.

Golf course funding comes from the city's enterprise fund, which means no tax money is used to pay for the course, and only comes from green fees charged to users.

Whether the city's general fund should subsidize the course's shortfall will be up for discussion at next month's council meeting, which will be held on Dec. 9 at 6 p.m.

The city has been putting off needed maintenance, and took on a $1.3 million debt to renovate the clubhouse and do other improvements.

Because the local golf market is competitive, changing prices at the course isn't necessarily an option, Rapp said.

"It can price us out of the market pretty quickly," she said.

If play stays flat through 2023, the city might be back into a positive situation, but realistically, it is looking at a $100,000 to $500,000 per year subsidy from the general fund, she said.

"The difficult thing is we really don't what to expect with play," she said.

The City Council will have to decide whether to provide a level of subsidy from the general fund or consider an alternate operating model, such as allowing non-city employees to maintain and operate the course, which would cut back on costs.

Fifty percent of the course expenditures go toward salaries and benefits.

The city could contract out maintenance, golf operations, food and beverage costs, or some variation of any of those, which could save anywhere from $180,000 a year to $424,000 a year.

Rapp said other cities are choosing to subsidize their golf courses out of their general funds, and "we think that's appropriate." she said, adding that Los Banos Pool and city tennis courts receive general fund subsidies.

"We are not to the level yet" of talking about closing the course, she said.

Bryant Henson, a marshal of 10 years at the golf course, said that if the city contracted out, maintenance could suffer. 

"The near future is bright," he said, but a cut in service could make facilities degrade.

Rick Salazny, who uses the course once a week, said the course is an asset to the city, but it needs to be operated in a sustainable way.

"It is a good golf course," he said, adding that the city can't afford to have city workers and remain in the black. "It's an extraordinary amount of money spent for maintenance."

Hart said he doesn't feel like the answer is to fully privatize the course, and noted that the course's restaurant, Mulligans, is doing quite well.

Golf was created as an enterprise fund because it was profitable at the time, he said, but that doesn't seem to be the trend any longer.

Hart assured the public that he wants to keep the golf course open, it's just a question of whether to subsidize it.

White said he's optimistic about golf on the course, and that he's interested in the city maintaining substantial control over the facility, though some services could be contracted out. 

"I would like to see this course breaking even," he said. "I don't think it needs to be a revenue generator for the city."

Francisco, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he thinks the golf course can be self-sustaining, and that if a private contractor does displace city workers, "the idea would not be to put these people out on the streets, but find other positions for them in the city."

"The full council is going to have evaluate this and come to a full decision," he said.  

Francisco agreed that the public needs to be consulted before a decision is reached in June during the city's budget sessions.

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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