The city took the first steps on Tuesday toward making its six publicly owned golf courses financially self-sustaining.
The move was welcomed by those who operate privately owned courses and say city links operate at a loss, but are subsidized by tax dollars, placing the private courses at an unfair disadvantage.
The city has "a monopoly on golf facilities available to the public in Lexington," said Todd Christian, representing three families who own the Bull Golf Course in Madison County.
"And they have driven the price down so far to make the game attainable for seniors, juniors and beginners," he said. "But there are a lot of seniors who play these golf courses simply because it's cheap."
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The Bull charges seniors $29 for a round of golf plus cart. By comparison, Lakeside Golf Course charges seniors $24, according to an overview of the city's golf operations. Kearney Hill Links, the city's most expensive course, charges seniors $32.
The services committee of the Urban County Council approved the establishment of a golf enterprise fund for the operation of the city courses. The motion will now move to the full council for its consideration.
The enterprise fund would contain all the money generated by the six courses from tee times, beverages and merchandise sales.
"Those revenues would be used to pay the expenses — the utilities, the chemicals and the water and utilities — for golf," said Jerry Hancock, director of parks and recreation.
No general fund dollars would be used for golf course operations. "They would be self-sufficient," Hancock said. "Dollar in, dollar out." That way, there would be no question that golf pays its own way, he added.
Contrary to rumor, Hancock said, the city courses did not operate at a $1 million loss last year.
"We lost $11,000 in 2009," he said.
But Hancock's figures for profit and loss did not include debt service, property taxes, golf operation salaries and golf superintendent salaries, said Steven Howard, owner of Old Silo Golf Course in Mt. Sterling.
The city runs its courses on a break-even basis, but break-even "doesn't do it" for private business, making it hard to compete, Christian said.
Part of the financial pressures on golf courses is "overbuilding of the golf business for the past 15 years," Hancock said. "Many courses are no longer profitable." Not much more than time will help solve that problem, he added.
But Lexington did not add to that overbuilding. Kearney Hill, the last course the city built, was opened in 1989. Picadome, bought by the city in 2000, was built in 1927 and is the oldest municipal course in Central Kentucky.
Councilman Jay McChord, who proposed the golf enterprise fund, said separating golf course revenue and expenses will provide the council with hard and fast numbers numbers to look at, "versus this thing that is a little bit muddy right now."
In other golf-related action, Bob Rumpke, executive director of Blue Grass Tomorrow, a regional planning organization, told the Services Committee that his organization — with approval from his board — will set up a working group to bring public and private interests together to promote Central Kentucky golf.
This suggestion came at McChord's urging. The councilman wants to see golf courses work together to make Central Kentucky a "golf destination" within the decade.