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Council debates Pitch and Putt contract

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Though City Council members started out Tuesday intending to talk about the entire Parks and Recreation Department budget, most of their discussion Tuesday centered on the possibility that Butler Park Pitch and Putt could change management in the near future.

Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley told Council her department will open the city-owned facility’s operating contract up for bidding within the next month or two.

Hensley said that, although the recent contract expired last Friday, her department has extended it for an additional 190 days under its current operator, Lee Kinsey, in order to keep the facility operational until the next contract is settled.

Council Member Mike Martinez was the first to raise concerns about the plan, saying it will “ruffle a lot of feathers” and calling the course one of Austin’s iconic treasures.

If the city were to transfer the contract over to a new party, Hensley noted, it would be the first time the agreement has changed hands in nearly 50 years. She also said the bidding process does not preclude Kinsey from applying for the contract, and that opening it up for bidding does not necessarily mean the facility will change management.

Division Manager for Golf Kevin Gomillion told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that the contract will likely be advertised for four to six weeks. Once the solicitation has closed, he said, Parks and Recreation will evaluate the proposals for about two  months before delivering its recommendations to Council, most likely in December.

Council will have to approve the new contract for it to take effect. Gomillion noted that Council may decide not to approve the contract, in which case it would likely direct Parks and Recreation to consider other options and return with another proposal.

Hensley clarified the rationale behind the decision to Council. “As a staff, we have absolutely no intentions of changing what’s happening there,” she said. “It’s just that we believe it’s time to look at this more competitively.”

While Council Member Laura Morrison noted the importance of the city’s need to maximize its return with the facility, she suggested rethinking the plan. “(We could) figure out what would be good enough and ask the folks, out of respect for the work that they’ve done and the tradition and the part of the community that they are, if they can provide that.”

Council Member Bill Spelman did not share Morrison’s sentiments. “If we don’t do something to that golf course to make it a much better experience for folks, we’re going to be facing another situation where the only logical thing for us to do is to remove the golf course entirely and replace it with something else,” he said. “I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing.”

Other issues Council raised during the meeting were concerns about shortfalls in the department’s tree maintenance program, the need to further enforce and enhance safety rules at the Barton Springs spillway, and a requested increase in funding for the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.

Overall, the department’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 is $82.8 million, a $10.7 million increase from the amended budget for Fiscal Year 2014. The budget proposal noted that part of the increase is due to this year’s transfer of costs for services such as information technology from the fund level to departmental budgets.

The budget includes one new full-time position for an Occupational Health and Safety Officer, the conversion of three Golf Park Grounds Assistants from temporary to full-time status, and $460,000 for new, renovated and existing Parks and Recreation facilities.

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