On Monday, September 20, the Mayor and Council concluded (for now) the situation with Red Gate Golf Course, an issue that’s been vexing them for the last year (and longer). Unfortunately, they didn’t resolve the issue, they just kicked the can further down the road to let the next city council deal with this tar baby. By eliminating past debt and next year’s anticipated deficit, they were able to put off the hard decision about the golf course until 2012.
Rosy predictions about the golf course’s future (“we’re giving them a clean slate,” “I just know they’ll succeed as soon as the economy improves”) are either condescending or naïve. The golf course has run deficits for years and has had declining participation for nearly two decades–this isn’t related to the economic downturn. Without a serious change in management or increased investment, we can’t expect things to improve. And we can’t rely on the Red Gate Advisory Committee to come up with the answers, no matter how hard they try. Everyone on the committee has a vested interest in the golf course; no alternative perspectives are seriously presented or considered. As the old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Sorry, guys.
It was fascinating to watch the machinations, however. Mayor Marcuccio would have supported the golf course no matter the size of the deficit or what the studies showed. Joe Jordan, the leading advocate for the golf course, was Marcuccio’s campaign manager and a major contributor in the last election. There was no way she was going to disappoint a person who clearly helped her get elected. But she was only one vote, so how to deliver the three she needed? She not only delivered more than enough votes to keep it off the council agenda for another two years, but also $2. 4 million. She did it brilliantly and you’ll have to watch the meeting to see how she did it, but I’m now convinced that the little old lady is an able politician.
So what was the hard decision that was delayed? Whether to make the golf course pay its own way just like all the other “enterprises” (read “businesses”) owned by the city, such as water and trash. Done correctly, if a city enterprise isn’t able to cover its expenses from green fees and other earned income, it would have to be raised in taxes or fees. That’s what we did recently for trash service as well as water system improvements. To figure out what this might cost, let’s do the math. With 24,000 households in the city and a projected annual deficit of $674,000, that would be an additional $28 in taxes per household. Doesn’t seem like much to me, but asking for a tax increase would have turned the tables on the golf course and created a firestorm for the council. The other choice is to change the golf course from an “enterprise fund” and integrate it into the parks and recreation program, where it would be annually subsidized like any other program of the city. But that would have prompted more questions about the value of this specialized recreation program in comparison to others offered by the city–no one seemed comfortable with that analysis. The City Council instead chose to take the easiest and most politically expedient course to get this monkey off its back until after the next election–spend surplus funds. Had those funds not been available to them, they would have been forced to answer the difficult but essential question and the meeting would have ended very differently.
The trouble with spending $2.4 million out of the surplus to cover annual deficits is that it ignores good financial management–don’t spend one-time revenue on on-going expenses. It’s a bad strategy because you won’t be able to keep it up for long. It’s like selling your car to pay your rent. And they may have only traded one problem for another. The golf course may be off their agendas for now, but I sense people will be wondering why those same funds couldn’t have been spent on parking in the Town Square, road repair, snow removal, community center improvements, street cleaning, bike paths, code enforcement, and the myriad other things that voters have been asking about previously.
It’ll take a couple years, but I can’t wait to see how this story will unfold.