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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Wichita City Council approves golf fee increase but hesitates on future increases

By Bill Wilson
The Wichita Eagle

Wichita’s public golf course users will pay an extra dollar each time they play starting April 1, but it’s unclear what will happen to the courses or their fees next year and beyond after a Wichita City Council vote Tuesday morning.

Council members voted 6-1 with Pete Meitzner opposed to approve a $1 across-the-board rate increase for greens fees at the city’s five golf courses for 2012.

However, they stopped short of approving $1 increases in greens fees for the next four years, as the city’s park board and staff had recommended.

Instead, they asked the city’s park board and a new golf advisory committee for recommendations on future rate hikes.

Council member Jeff Longwell led the charge to approve an increase for just one year. He said he wants to review the effect of the price increase after one year, and wants a report from the park board and city staff on the effect of new marketing and customer service efforts that are expected to raise player participation by at least 2 percent.

“I don’t agree with the recommendation of the price increase (in city documents),” Longwell said. “I could live with a dollar the first year and see where it goes.”

Council member James Clendenin agreed with Longwell.

“I do understand that the pro formas (financial balance sheets) say what they say, but they’re just that and they don’t know what the future holds,” he said.

City Manager Robert Layton, who recommended the fee increases to balance out a golf fund budget riddled with debt and handicapped by declining course use, said he was comfortable with Longwell’s approach.

“We can monitor the system’s performance and bring back a pro forma (financial balance sheet) that gives me comfort on top of the finances in the whole system and we can report back on the impact of this dollar well in advance of next year,” Layton said.

The formation and governance of the golf committee led Meitzner to vote no. Council members disagreed — as they did on Feb. 14 — over how the board should be appointed and whether the advisory group should report to the park board or the council given the financial problems of the gas fund.

“It needs more oversight and discipline,” Meitzner said. “We are facing this challenge because of the way it’s been in the past, and we are asking citizens to be in charge of one of the enterprises in our budget.

“If we had a water or sewer issue, we sure wouldn’t be asking citizenson a board to make decisions.”

Park board members and city staff recommended an eight-member board, including seven appointed jointly by park board members and council members, with one appointed by the park board. Several council members wanted to make their own appointments and make the board report directly to them.

“I think it’s against the grain,” Meitzner said. “I think the council should appoint the person and that person should not feel there’s an approval process with the park department to be on the committee.”

And council member Janet Miller questioned the need for another golf committee.

“I continue to struggle with having two separate entities in the park system reporting on this issue,” she said. “It doesn’t make much sense to me.”

But Longwell prevailed, saying he thinks council members and their representatives on the park board can work together for the best appointee to the golf panel.

Today’s action also clears the way for a major study of golf course privatization by the new golf advisory committee, a process that some feel has already begun.

City officials said last week that the park board requested input last fall from professional course managers like Rod and Rick Nuckolls of Wichita and Kemper Sports, operators of the Sand Creek Station Golf Course in Newton.

The city’s golf program has been unable to meet its debt obligations since 2004, which led Layton to propose closing a course last year. The courses have been profitable, making $180,000 in 2001, but haven’t made enough to pay the debt obligations, which center on a $3 million balance from a golf revenue bond to build the city’s newest course, Auburn Hills, in 2001.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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