18 Holes of Waste

At a time when police, firefighters and teachers are being laid off, it's hard to justify the municipal golf course.
by | August 8, 2011

Over the past three years, property tax collections—the main fuel that powers municipal governments across the country—have declined steadily. As a result, cities and towns have been forced to lay off essential government workers and reduce levels of service, and have turned their focus back to core government functions. Like golf.

Oh, come on—only a limited-government zealot could possibly object to a part-time municipal worker making a median salary of $77,361 when non-essential employees such as police, firefighters and teachers are getting pink slips.

Golf as a function of local government is the party guest who won't leave. In good times, publicly owned golf courses are justified as an amenity that permits low- and moderate-income players to enjoy a game that would otherwise be the exclusive province of swells who can afford country-club fees. In bad times, municipalities find themselves saddled with sweetheart contracts that pay golf directors as much as $300,000 for a season that may last from April to October, allowing them to pocket income from ancillary operations such as driving ranges and pro shops.

While I don't claim that my research is comprehensive, I have read the constitutions of a number of states, and have yet to find a "right to golf" clause. I'll admit that I'm an adherent of the Mark Twain "Golf is a good walk spoiled" school of thought, but I can quote liberally from "Caddyshack" and I try to play a round once a decade, just to keep my game sharp. So I don't think I've been completely blinded by anti-golf prejudice.

The argument that without government support golf would be unavailable to the masses is dubious. In this, as in areas such as K-12 education, the issue is often cast as a choice between two opposite ends of the spectrum; the snooty Courses at Willow Bend Hollow, etc., representing the private sector, and inner-city links such as Boston's Franklin Park, exemplifying the public sector.

What this stark contrast leaves out is the privately owned courses in the middle; bare-bones operations, sometimes built on landfills, that offer the same low rates as municipal facilities and are open to the public.

For the city or town that doesn't want to sell its land but also doesn't want the payroll and benefit costs and pension liabilities that come with a public workforce, there is private management of a course that remains public property. American Golf Corp., for example, operates 70 public courses nationwide and applies economies of scale and experience that are unavailable to cities and towns that are in the golf business only as a sideline.

Even if it were true that public access to golf would be severely diminished if municipal courses were to close, the question that comes to mind is "So what?" What is it about the game that requires government to be the golf course of last resort? Golf takes up more park space than other sports, and the number of residents who use public courses is typically a small minority.

Dire consequences are frequently predicted if government-owned recreational functions are turned over to the private sector—hockey rinks come to mind—and all have turned out to be as overstated as a Saturday duffer's lime green pants.

Cornelius Chapman | Contributor |