Golf course isn't covering costs

October 08, 2002 12:00 am
Golfers enjoy Baker City's 18-hole golf course. The physical condition of the course may be the best ever, but its fiscal health is ailing. The City Council discusses the situation tonight. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Golfers enjoy Baker City's 18-hole golf course. The physical condition of the course may be the best ever, but its fiscal health is ailing. The City Council discusses the situation tonight. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).


Of the Baker City Herald

Baker City's golf course budget deficit is growing.

City officials project the city-owned course's expenses will exceed revenues by about $54,000 for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2003.

And that doesn't include any payments on the $52,000 loan from the city's general fund, a loan the City Council approved in June to balance the golf course's books for the previous fiscal year.

The course was supposed to begin paying off that loan this year.

The City Council will discuss the situation during its meeting tonight at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, 1655 First St.

Among the council's options are spending less money on the course, or accepting that the general fund, which is made up mainly of tax dollars and includes the police and fire departments, will need to continue to subsidize the 18-hole course.

The $52,000 loan was the first such subsidy from the general fund.

The basic dilemma for the course is that revenue from golfers has not increased, while maintenance expenses have risen since the city expanded the course from nine holes to 18 three years ago, said Laura Harryman, the city's finance director.

In fiscal year 1999-2000, maintaining the course cost the city about $58,000, Harryman said.

Revenue from annual membership and daily greens fees totaled about $181,000.

Last fiscal year the maintenance bill totaled $128,000, and revenue was about $171,000.

The increase in maintenance costs reflects not only the addition of nine new holes, but also a new commitment to keeping the course in excellent shape throughout the golfing season, City Attorney Tim Collins said.

Course Superintendent Billy Cunningham, whose contract with the city expires Dec. 31, 2003, has groomed the course into perhaps its best condition ever, Collins said.

Ron Blankinship, who runs the pro shop, agreed.

"Mr. Cunningham has done a great job; (the course) is in excellent shape," Blankinship said.

The economy, unfortunately, is not.

Americans are more reluctant to open their wallets these days, and when they do the money is likely to pay for food and housing rather than leisure activities such as golf.

"The ‘fun' dollars are the first to go," Blankinship said.

With fewer of those fun dollars in circulation, Baker City's golf course isn't the only one spending thousands of dollars to mow, water and fertilize fairways and putting greens that sometimes are as deserted as they are pastoral.

"I've talked to some other pro shops, and most courses are having their troubles," Blankinship said.

Baker City also is enduring the growing pains all courses experience when they expand to 18 holes, he said.

Golfers who have played here recently are supplying invaluable word-of-mouth advertising about the expanded course, but the favorable reviews don't spread as quickly as city officials wish they would, Blankinship said.

"It takes time for people to learn about the course," he said.

Blankinship said he expects the expansion to 18 holes will pay increasing dividends to the city over the next several years.

Baker City also is competing with another new 18-hole course, Buffalo Peak in Union.

That course attracts some of the travelers on Interstate 84 who might otherwise have played in Baker City – or, in better economic times, played both courses, Blankinship said.

"You need that draw off the freeway," he said.

Even the weather was uncooperative this year.

Winter's late departure cost the course a couple of weeks of play in March, Blankinship said.

Daily greens fees totaled a meager $58 for the month.

Cool, windy weather also discouraged golfers for much of the rest of the spring.

"It's not a disaster, but it's money, and money you don't make up," Blankinship said.

However, more favorable weather the remainder of this fiscal year could help the course slice into that estimated $54,000 deficit, Harryman said.

That number assumes revenue next spring will be the same as this year, she said.

But an early and warm spring likely would boost revenues over the projections, and thus shrink the actual deficit.

The golf board also is striving to sell more annual memberships, which generate more money than daily greens fees — about $90,000 per year compared with $81,000, City Manager Gordon Zimmerman said.

"We need to increase the number of memberships and the number of golfers who come in off the freeway," he said. "We're looking at the whole range of possibilities."

Among those ranges is a driving range, an amenity the course lacks.

Zimmerman said a driving range would generate revenue on its own, and could lead to beginning golfers eventually buying memberships.

Tonight's meeting will not be the first at which the golf course budget has figured prominently on the City Council's agenda.

Although councilors agreed to the $52,000 general fund loan this spring, they did not do so without criticizing the volunteer golf board.

Councilors were especially incensed by overspending on a new storage building.

Construction costs totaled about $54,000 — $39,000 more than the city budgeted for the building.

Golf Board Chairman Jim Grove told the council he intended to use volunteer labor to complete the building, but that far fewer people helped than he expected.

Mayor Nancy Shark called the cost overruns "unacceptable." She and other councilors also were angry because the golf board failed to solicit competitive bids for any materials or labor for the building, as Oregon law requires for publicly funded projects.

Since then the council, as well as city voters, have taken steps to tighten control of the golf course's budget.

In May, voters approved revisions to the city charter, among them one giving Zimmerman authority to sign work orders for the course.

Prior to the change, the golf board chairman approved those bills.

None of the city's other board and commissions has any financial authority — the chairman of the airport commission, for example, does not sign work orders for that facility.

And then in June the council voted to remove Zimmerman as a member of the seven-person golf board.

Zimmerman requested the change. He said he does not believe that as the financial manager for the course he should be a voting member of the golf board.