Salt Lake City’s public golf needs subsidies to get by; council to review its handicap

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andrew Gerbus tees off on #11 at Bonneville Golf Course, Friday, May 11, 2018.

Back in the mid-1990s, Salt Lake City’s golf courses did well enough financially that advocates moved to separate the golf division from the rest of the city budget, so any profits could get plugged right back into operations.

But the country’s passion for the game has waned since a 2006 peak, and that drop-off shows up readily on the city’s golf budget scorecard, in red ink: Where once golf subsidized the city’s general fund, now, and for several years, it’s been the other way around, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

Funding city golf comes up perennially at city budget time. Discussion and debate are scheduled to come up again Tuesday, when the City Council digs into details of the golf division’s $7.7 million budget. So far, the city has not found a way out of what has become a financial sand trap.

There is no instant solution, Councilman Charlie Luke said Friday. “But we’re also not seeing any good proposals coming from the administration on how to fix this.”

Revenues at the city’s six courses have declined steadily. Greens fees brought in $4.4 million five years ago but are budgeted at $3.7 million for next year, based on a downturn that also reflects course closings in recent years.

For the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the city poured $400,000 of one-time money into improvements at the Rose Park course. Even without that expense next year, the city will use $267,500 of general fund surplus to balance the division’s budget.

That’s not including $430,000 in debt service for changing over golf course sprinkler systems from drinkable water to less expensive irrigation, or “secondary” water. Including that expense, subsidizing golf would cost the city $700,000 next year.

That’s besides the $20 million or so in deferred maintenance the city says the courses need in the next 10 to 15 years.

As an enterprise fund, the city’s golf operation is designed to be self-sufficient. Council members on Tuesday are expected to question why the city is subsidizing a public offering that is not for the benefit of the entire public, like city parks are.

The council “has given clear policy direction” that it doesn’t like using surplus money for golf, Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said Friday. “And the proposal before us this year is contrary to that.”

But simply taking away that surplus and cutting spending on golf by the same amount, if the council were so inclined, creates its own set of problems. For example, if the city decided to mothball one or more of its courses to save money, it would still have to pay for some level of upkeep to lessen eventual reopening costs. Restart costs are part of what ultimately sank the city’s Wingpointe course, which closed in 2015 but breathed its last gasp in the fall.

Other options include creating additional recreational opportunities at the courses — an idea golfers don’t like — or, even more drastic, converting city courses to parks. At least one course, Nibley Park, is chartered to require that it remain a golf course or revert back to private ownership. And adding parks, which don’t charge user fees, means finding new funds to maintain them.

Luke said this might not be the year the city arrives at a long-term solution to its golf funding handicap. The game, President Woodrow Wilson famously said, is “an ineffectual attempt to put an elusive ball into an obscure hole with implements ill-adapted to the purpose.” Hacking at city golf’s larger problem in the context of a narrower spending discussion might be a similarly vexing exercise.

“I hope that we can reach a clear consensus among council members on their willingness to use the general fund to continue subsidizing golf,” Mendenhall said, “or a proposal to reduce expenses to make it self-sustaining.”