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Parks and Rec Board hopes to make golf courses self-sustaining

Tuesday, October 4, 2016 by Cate Malek

Worried that Austin’s municipal golf courses are sucking money away from the city’s already underfunded parks, the Parks and Recreation Board is investigating how to make the courses pay for themselves.

The city’s municipal golf courses have been operating at a loss for the last four years because of various difficulties ranging from flooding to insects. Now, although the courses are set to pull in more revenue than they have in the last five years, the golf division is still expected to have a budget shortfall of $300,000 or more. At its meeting on Sept. 27, the Parks and Recreation Board began to delve into how to ensure that the golf courses don’t pull money away from the pressing needs of Austin’s parks.

“We don’t want to take golf away from anyone,” Board Member Rick Cofer told the Austin Monitor. “But the question is, can we get golf to pay for itself?”

The city operates six golf courses, which are meant to cover their own costs instead of depending on tax revenues. But in recent years the courses have been faced with a number of challenges. Most severe was flooding in 2015 that left one of the courses under 7 feet of water. Other difficulties have included drought, a maintenance barn burning down and an invasion of nematodes, which are tiny insects that damage golf course grass, making it difficult to play on.

“This will be the first year in five years we haven’t had a golf course closed for construction or renovated due to flooding,” said Kevin Gomillion, the Golf Division manager for the city.

Although the courses have had a good year in 2016 and are expecting to pull in around $6.5 million, the Golf Division is still expecting a budget shortfall because of the city’s new requirement that employees receive a living wage, or the wage required to pay for basic living expenses in Austin.

The Golf Division employs about 90 part-time employees who were previously paid an average of about $8 per hour. Although this rate is lower than the living wage, it is a comparable wage to those paid by similarly priced golf courses in the area, Gomillion said. Bringing those employees up to Austin’s living wage of $13 means they are making around $5 more per hour than employees at golf courses not owned by the city.

“It’s a tough model to make work,” Gomillion said.

To offset that expense, City Council will give the Golf Division $500,000 from the city’s General Fund in Fiscal Year 2016-2017. But because that expense is included in the Parks and Recreation Department budget, board members are afraid that it will overshadow other needs in the city’s chronically underfunded parks.

“We as a community don’t spend nearly enough on our parks,” Cofer told the Monitor. He referred to numbers that were presented at a Parks and Recreation Board meeting earlier this year, which showed that Austin spends about $83 per capita on its parks, while other cities spend significantly more. Seattle, for example, spends about $265 per capita. If the city of Austin has to continue subsidizing golf, Cofer is concerned that Council will believe that it is increasing the PARD budget when in fact the money that the department has to spend is staying the same or decreasing.

While no action will be taken on the golf courses in the immediate future, PARD is looking into creative solutions to make up for golf’s revenue shortage. The Golf Division has already begun to try out new strategies, such as hosting cross-country meets on its courses to pull in more money.

However, despite their concerns over the revenue shortage, many members of the Parks and Recreation Board see the municipal courses as a good investment and want to continue to make the game accessible for ordinary Austinites.

“Whether you’re rich or poor, you should be able to play golf,” Cofer said.

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