Cedar Rapids golf budget still bleeding red

Jones staying open for now, but might go to 9 holes

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Don’t expect a revival of plans to close the Jones Golf Course anytime soon, although shrinking Jones from 18 to nine holes to save money remains on the table, according to a top Cedar Rapids official.

“I would say yes,” Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler told the Parks and Waterway Commission last Tuesday in response to a question about whether closing Jones is off the table.

Fowler was part of a staff committee that recommended closing Jones earlier this year to help balance the golf department’s budget, which has averaged a $300,000-a-year deficit since 2012.

“We are going to be a four-course system,” she said. “We are not hearing anything different from that. ... One question I guess I would add still is if Jones stays 18.”

The city also operates the Twin Pines, Gardner and Ellis courses.

Reducing the size of Jones is one of several big choices ahead as city leaders search for large and small cuts to balance the golf budget, as popularity of the sport wanes.

Also on the table is whether to eliminate the director of golf position — the head of the golf department — once Lisa Miller retires at the end of the year after 19 years in the department.

Another option — privatizing management of the courses — also will be studied for the City Council.

The problem with going to nine holes at Jones, Fowler said, is that it wouldn’t save much money because the same overhead remains.

The gains as a nine-hole course would come from being less susceptible to closure from flooding, which has been a major factor in Jones’ financial woes.

City staffers recommended the closing of Jones this year, but City Council members, under pressure from residents, opted to keep it open, saying they’d give it another season and leave the door open for closing Jones in the future.

That no longer appears to be the case.

Had the City Council approved closing Jones, the department was projected to end the season $100,000 in the black for fiscal 2018, the first time it would break even in years.

Instead, the department is on track to lose $100,000 this year. Losses will be backfilled by the taxpayer supported general fund.

Some are critical of the city for how it has handled golf operations.

“To me, it is unreasonable for the council to expect it to make money when you handcuff the people that are actually running the business,” said Bill Unger, a member of the parks and waterways commission. “How are you ever going to break even, especially if you have a loser like Jones, which it is.”

Fowler noted some changes have occurred and appear to be helping the golf budget, including ramping up marketing, eliminating a golf pro position and last week eliminating a golf superintendent position.

“Our direction is to have the golf system perform as well as we can have it perform and then make a recommendation about subsidies,” Fowler said. “We have to work on the revenue side, just hammer revenue because we’ve got expenses pretty far down.”

As the golf season winds down, rounds of golf are up 7 percent, revenue is up $55,000 and expenses are down $22,000 through the first quarter of fiscal 2018, compared to the same time period in fiscal 2017.

“The change between the two years can be attributed to Jones being fully operational and not flooded, increased marketing efforts in 2017 and great weather with few rainout days,” said Gail Loskill, spokeswoman for the parks and recreation department.

One frequent question is how golf turned from a break-even enterprise to a money loser.

Casey Drew, the city finance director, said the city started billing departments for shared services, such as accounting and interdepartmental charges. Those changes occurred in 2007.

“Typically, the larger your operation is with employees, the more services you are using,” Drew said. “That has been the method. It’s not a random number we just throw out there and charge. It’s based on what we see from activity.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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