Mountain View Voice

Opinion - July 2, 2010

Golf course running out of green

Unless the City Council can find a new formula to turn the popular Shoreline Golf Links from a money-loser to at least break-even status, it looks like one of Mountain View's greatest assets is in danger of being farmed out to a private operator or seeing its maintenance operations curtailed.

Those are among the options the council is considering to bring the operation — home to about 65,000 paid rounds of golf in 2008-09 — out of the red caused by the economic downturn and perhaps an oversupply of geese and coots who foul the fairways and greens. To keep the course afloat, the council must confront the classic economic challenges — declining revenue and rising expenses — an unsustainable formula that shows the course will run a deficit of more than $800,000 in 2011-12 unless something is done.

As they move toward a decision, the council will have plenty of information to sift from two prior studies that compared Shoreline with Palo Alto and other similar courses. All courses offer budget-priced green fees in the $30 range, convenient locations and some challenging terrain over an 18 hole-course. Still, good prices and convenience could not overcome a 9-percent drop in revenue during a budget year when many city workers are giving up salary increases or other benefits. Looking ahead, the city simply cannot afford to subsidize a golf course that could lose close to $1 million a year.

The city's staff report shows several ways the council could reallocate costs and revenues at Shoreline:

• In the most recent budget year, income fell 9 percent, and the cost of paying union employees jumped from $1.4 million in 2000 to $2.1 million last year, which is a major factor in the rising costs. The average salary jumped from $46,100 to $86,900 in the period, an increase of close to 90 percent.

• Unlike other nearby courses, the Shoreline Links are assessed $431,000 a year for water, a cost that is expected to go up 5 percent next year when the use of recycled water begins. In contrast, Palo Alto provides recycled water at no charge for its course.

• Several other bookkeeping practices also take away thousands of dollars in golf course revenues. For example, many golfers patronize Michael's at Shoreline, but the $155,000 rent for the building is not credited to the golf course, as is the case at most other courses, according to the study. The golf course also is assessed $359,000 a year for a share of the city's administrative "overhead" costs such as the salaries of the city manager and city attorney, a charge that is not found at other courses.

Taken together, the discretionary charges for water and overhead, plus the $155,000 in rent paid to the city by Michael's restaurant, and the Shoreline Links bottom line would jump into the black.

But as council members said Tuesday, even if the city cuts the course a deal on water or administrative fees, the money will have to come from somewhere else, such as higher water rates for city residents. It is not too much to ask that the golf course be able to sustain itself without a subsidy.

Unless a deal to reduce salaries can be made with the unions that represent the course's workers, it appears that the council's best option will be to outsource the operation to a private contractor. Even though that would be painful for some city workers, it may be the only chance to keep the balls in the air at Shoreline Golf Links.

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