A foursome of Republican lawmakers made headlines recently after a Nashville television station revealed they’d spent a leisurely legislative-day afternoon this spring out on the links.
In fact, a lot of golfers who might not realize it are shooting publicly subsidized rounds when they tee off at courses owned by the state government, according to a recent report by a spending watchdog group.
Taxpayers, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research says, are getting clubbed for a portion of the greens fees.
Since TCPR began scoring the financial performance of state government-managed golf spots five years ago, the public has sunk nearly $7 million down the hole.
That may seem like a lot of green, but government administrators are quick to extol the management of their facilities. And one of the most worthwhile aspects of the tax-funded greenskeeping, they say, is that three government courses have won prestigious awards for going environmentally green — even as their budgets have spent years in the red.
Last month Fall Creek Falls Golf Course was awarded designation as a “Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary” for meeting “specific criteria in the areas of environmental planning; wildlife and habitat management; outreach and education; chemical use reduction and safety; water conservation; and water quality management.”
During the last budget cycle at Fall Creek, lawmakers teed up $731,000 for the golf course to operate. However, the facility is expected to only generate about $478,000 in revenue, according to numbers provided by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which manages the course.
By taking measures to qualify for the environmental sustainability award, the course will save about $1,400 in lawn care costs and reduce water usage by 16,000 gallons a year, according to TDEC.
Two other courses that have previously won the international Audubon award also operate at a loss. In the FY2008-09 budget year, Harrison Bay dropped $20,482 more than it earned in revenue and Paris Landing closed out $59,959 in the rough.
Tennessee is home to 11 state-owned golf courses. The government spent about $8.5 million last year on the facilities, while collecting only $6.9 million from users – a loss to taxpayers of about $1.6 million, concluded TCPR’s 2010 “Pork Report.”
“It’s not fair for Tennessee tax payers who don’t golf — many of them can’t golf — to subsidize those who choose to golf,” Justin Owen, acting executive director for the Nashville-based group, said.
Courses handicapped by low revenues ought to at least be charging user fees a fair ways closer to profitability, said Owen. And if the government can’t operate the facilities in the black, the fiscally sub-par courses should be sold off or leased out so the private sector can take a swing at running them, he said.
Jim Fyke, Department of Environment and Conservation commissioner, acknowledged in an interview with TNReport that “golf is in a tough time right now.”
“I’m not going to tell you golf courses, in immediate times, are going to start to make money,” said Fyke. He added that the Audubon award is “a feather in our cap when we’re getting our negative publicity on our lack of play at these courses.”
Furthermore, said Fyke, the courses are closer to solvency than the TCPR study suggests. All but three of golf courses are destination locations, or “hospitality centers,” situated near state-owned inns, restaurants, camp grounds, swimming pools, hiking trails, and marinas that attract visitors, he said.
Add up the costs of tourists’ golf fees, lodging, food and other expenses, and the recreational hubs are 99.1 percent solvent, said Fyke.
“It’s really, I think, a little bit unfair to single (golf courses) out,” he said.
Two Republican legislators, Rep. Joshua Evans of Greenbrier and Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, also looked at slicing the facilities this spring, proposing that the state lease or sell any courses that under-perform for two years straight.
The measure was never heard in committee.
Lawmakers tentatively agreed to get rid of two courses next year, anyway. The Legislature OK’d one-time funding for Old Stone Fort and T.O. Fuller golf courses in the latest budget, but will force the facilities to close when that money runs out in 2011 unless the General Assembly calls a Mulligan.