Drawing a Line in the Sand Trap

Golfers Fight Privatization of Public Course

<b>One of the Regulars:</b> Fumie Sato has golfed the public course two to three times a week for more than 10 years.
Paul Wellman

A proposal to privatize all or parts of the Santa Barbara Municipal Golf Course was dealt a resounding setback Tuesday night in the face of passionate and articulate opposition from about 40 die-hard golfers who packed City Council chambers. The council opted instead to punt on the chronic financial shortfalls that have dogged the course since the recession. What plan of attack the council will embrace to bridge these shortfalls ​— ​in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year ​— ​remains to be seen.

But at least for this holiday season, no councilmember felt any urgency to act on the voluminous and exhaustive proposal prepared by Parks and Recreation czar Nancy Rapp to privatize the links, which now require 12 full-time city employees. Rapp estimated the course ​— ​which is a stand-alone, self-sustaining enterprise fund ​— ​could save hundreds of thousands a year by contracting out work now done by City Hall employees. Rapp explained in great detail how golf’s popularity among paying customers had waned ​— ​rounds played have plunged from 100,000 a year in the early ’90s to 62,000 last year. Accordingly, revenues at the Muni course have been dropping, and managers have had to dip into cash reserves to cover costs. This trend, Rapp insisted, is not sustainable.

Nancy Rapp, Parks and Recreation director.
Paul Wellman (file)

The council needs to bite the bullet and either fund the operation out of the general fund or outsource to a private management company. Rapp pointed out that the pro shop and restaurant were already run by private operators. With both those contracts expiring soon, she suggested City Hall might well solicit a lucrative unified bid for all three. City Hall, she insisted, would still maintain management oversight.

Rapp encountered stiff resistance from golfers, who argued that the course’s financial problems paled in comparison to its value as a unique community asset. “A jewel,” said many. Members of the Golf Advisory Committee urged the council to reject privatization, one calling it “an abomination.” With 12 city positions on the chopping block, the Service Employees International Union has also opposed the move. (Rapp insisted city employees would not lose their jobs; they would be reassigned, and their positions would be lost through attrition.) Likewise the police and firefighters unions have been lobbying behind the scenes to scuttle the deal; both unions have faced privatization scares of their own, which helped prompt this unusual display of common interest among city employee unions.

Siding with the unions were councilmembers Cathy Murillo and Gregg Hart. Murillo was outspoken in her opposition to what she termed “the race to the bottom.” She added, “I don’t see how replacing a decent-paying job with a good retirement plan with a poorer-paying job with at best a 401(k) can be considered progress.” She and Hart suggested that course operations be subsumed into the general fund like the city’s tennis courts and Los Baños pool. Councilmember Bendy White, who initially supported privatization, said he’d partially reconsidered. He didn’t want to see the links competing for limited general fund dollars with summer sports programs for low-income kids, pressing infrastructure needs, or, for that matter, the course’s 25,000 mature city trees that need care and attention.

Lurking in the minds of some councilmembers was the dismal failure ​— ​at least from a public-relations standpoint ​— ​of the decision two years ago to hand over the public tennis courts at Elings Park to a private contractor. If current trends continue, Rapp argued, the number of golf rounds will continue to drop, and the problem will deepen. Many of the golfers argued that the number of rounds played has plateaud and would pick up with the financial recovery. They said programs to recruit new and younger golfers are succeeding, as are efforts to induce more women to golf.


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