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City’s general fund would absorb golf courses under mayor’s budget proposal

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s 2021 budget proposal includes moving the city’s golf program into the general fund. Although the city’s four golf courses, including Arroyo del Oso, above, have been popular during the pandemic, the courses have consistently failed to generate enough revenue to support themselves. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A pandemic that kept people out of bars, kindergarten classrooms and baseball games has had the opposite effect on Albuquerque’s public golf courses.

The links were particularly lively this summer, with one municipal course manager telling the Journal in July the facility was seeing “easily the best business (it’s) had in at least the past six years.”

But city officials believe surging use may be only temporary and not a long-term solution for a municipal golf program that is supposed to be self-supporting but has routinely cost more to run than it has generated. Mayor Tim Keller is now proposing a budget that would put golf back under the umbrella of the city’s taxpayer-supported general fund. It has been an “enterprise” fund since 1991.

Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael said that the city’s golf courses were once able to pay their own way but that in the past 20 years they have faced increasing competition from other non-city options. Nationwide data has also shown that fewer Americans are playing golf than in the early 2000s.

Nearly 200,000 rounds are played annually at Albuquerque’s four municipal golf courses, including Arroyo del Oso Golf Course, above, and officials say a proposal to manage them under the city’s general fund could help improve them. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Rael said Keller’s budget proposal – now pending before City Council – reflects the reality that the city’s general fund is already consistently subsidizing the city’s four golf courses, which are not making enough to cover their costs. It also allows the courses to remain an affordable option for players.

“It just became evident … the general fund was having to support them with revenues, so it just makes sense now to make it into another city service like parks and like many other services the city has,” Rael said.

The general fund covers basic city services, including firefighters and animal shelters.

Parks and Recreation Director Dave Simon contends that parks and recreation facilities and programs are vital to city life, as evidenced by their popularity the past several months.

“The COVID-19 crisis has just proven beyond a reasonable doubt how important it is to invest in parks and recreation – and the enormous physical and mental health benefits of outdoor recreation,” Simon said.

Activity at city courses had been waning.

Rounds played fell 5% between fiscal years 2018 and 2019, slipping to 196,928. But the number remained steady in fiscal year 2020 – which ended June 30 – even though the facilities were closed for part of March and all of April. While rounds had been rising slightly leading into the pandemic, the numbers soared in May and June; total rounds those two months increased 39% compared with the same months in 2019, according to data provided to the Journal by the city.

Revenue, however, still lagged behind expenses, as has been the case for years. The golf fund brought in $3.8 million, compared with $4.6 million in expenses, preliminary city numbers show.

The general fund has routinely picked up the slack.

Keller’s proposed change will officially move golf expenses – and revenue – into the general fund. Officials say it also makes sense from a facilities perspective; the shift would make the courses eligible for general obligation bond money for improvements.

Simon said the course greens and fairways are in good shape currently but that there is a lot of infrastructure that requires investment to maintain. He said even seemingly small upgrades, including recently adding shade structures to the Ladera Golf Course patio, can make a difference.

“(It) has gotten rave reviews, and it has really changed and dramatically improved the attractiveness of the clubhouse area for golfers,” he said.

Sanjay Bhakta, the city’s chief financial officer, said the municipal courses need to offer more than mere affordability, and moving them to the general fund opens new opportunity to improve them.

“Right now, they are actually busy because people have nothing else to do, I think,” he said. “But we have some long-term deferred repairs which are necessary if we want to compete (with other courses).”

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