Golf fees increase but reservation fee is defeated

It was a case of good news coming with bad news last week for regular golfers at the municipal Griffith E. Harris Course.

At a special meeting on Dec. 28, the Board of Selectmen decided not to approve a new system that would allow players to reserve the prime tee times at the course, which is commonly known as “the Griff,” throughout the peak golfing season for a fee of $1,500. However, the board, by a two-to-one margin, did approve new greens fees with significant increases that left many people upset over the reservation proposal angry over that.

Under the newly approved fee structure, adults on weekdays will see costs go from $25 to $29 for 18 holes of golf. On weekends and holidays it will go from $30 to $34. For seniors, it will rise from $18 to $21 on the weekdays and $34 on the weekends, since there is no senior rate then. Additionally, junior greens fees will go from $17 to $21 during the week and up to $34 as well on the weekend. Town employees will also see their greens fees rise from $31 to $35 at all times.

Membership fees for the course will not go up this year. Guest fees, however, will increase. The “off season” guest fee for the greens will go from $44 to $48 and during the spring and summer months it will be $64, up from $60.

Selectman Drew Marzullo was the lone vote against the increase. He has voted against all fee increases this year and said at the meeting that he thought this was too high.

“We as a board just voted down a $1,500 reservation fee to increase greens fees by 14% to make up what we just voted down,” Mr. Marzullo said. “That makes no sense.”

Selectman David Theis said he preferred the higher greens fees as an alternative to raise revenue over the reservation fee because it gave individual golfers more of a say about whether or not they wanted to pay and how often they wanted to play.

“The individual can make a value judgment on his or her own,” Mr. Theis said. “This provides more flexibility to our residents.”

Town Director of Parks and Recreation Joe Siciliano said the increase is necessary to close an approximately $50,000 budget gap in revenue for course operations for next year. The town is facing reduced spending levels in the 2013-14 fiscal year under Board of Estimate and Taxation guidelines that Mr. Siciliano said would likely drive that deficit closer to $80,000.

While the course is financed through what is known as a revolving fund, which operates independently from the rest of the parks department budget and is made up of money raised from the course being put back into it for maintenance and operation, Mr. Siciliano said he didn’t see any options other than having either the increased greens fees or the reservation fee without having to reduce services.

“We’re not sure where those reductions would be, but they would be in the services area,” Mr. Siciliano said. “It’s not going to be in supplies and materials, etc., because we’re really bare boned out right there. It’s going to be in some service in some sort. … We’ve got to come up with a balanced budget going into the budget cycle. We don’t want to go in with a negative budget as far as revenue stream goes.”

Mr. Siciliano had asked the selectmen to approve a one-year trial for the reservation system to see if it had the impact that course users feared it would. Had this been approved, it would have blocked out two of the seven tee times available per hour on Saturday and Sunday from May 1 through the end of September for those paying the reservation fee. People who paid the fee would then be put into a lottery for the very best of the tee times. It would not have been in place during the week.

“The Griff has had a history of blocking out times for user groups,” Mr. Siciliano said. “I don’t look at this being any different. We block out approximately 14 to 15 shotgun starts a year when organizations and groups come in, take over the course for the whole afternoon and pay a premium for that. We do that now and we block out tee times for our men’s and our ladies user groups and the retired men’s groups, generally on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they pay the fee of the day. We do things like this already. Some generate premium revenue and others do not. … This would not exclude anyone from having to pay the greens fee of the day. It would just give them a blocked time.”

The proposal had first been introduced at the selectmen’s Dec. 20 meeting but was not approved at that time with other fee increases for 2013 because of time constraints. The special meeting was then held on Dec. 28 so a decision could be made by the end of the year, allowing the Parks and Recreation Department to prepare for the upcoming season. The initial meeting brought out a lot of outcry from Griff user groups, and they turned out again at the Dec. 28 meeting, saying they feared having the option of paying for reserved times would be the beginning of privatizing a public course.

Dale Myer, calling himself a “citizen and an active golfer” at the meeting, praised the hard work that course management, specifically operations manager David D’Andrea, did on a limited budget. But he said he was against the user fee “as a principle” because the current system is far more transparent.

“The fee rubs me the wrong way,” Mr. Myer said. “It feels like it will let only certain people use the course.”

Jack Klokel said he felt this would “benefit maybe 5% of 4,000 players” by giving them access to too many of the good tee times. He speculated this would only increase usage of the existing reservation system because there would be fewer tee times available for people who didn’t pay the fee. He added that since the reservation fee would have been open only to foursomes or more, it would be a deterrent against people like himself and his fiancée who play together as a twosome.

Brad Wallace, a frequent user of the course, told the selectmen he was against the idea because he didn’t think it was right, but admitted he would probably have used the reservation system had it been implemented because of the convenience. He said the issue “came down to communication” between course management and the users, and he offered to help in the future as part of a users group communicating between management and members.

“As a regular player at the Griff and someone who goes up there frequently just to practice or putt around with my kids or hit golf balls on my own, I never heard about this issue at all until I read about it in the paper,” Mr. Wallace said, adding he feared it would make the course too cost-prohibitive for people to play because other courses in Fairfield County had lower comparative costs.

Mr. Wallace said he didn’t believe “all other avenues had been exhausted to find revenue from the Griff,” and others agreed with him. Mr. Klokel suggested raising the season pass $5, because with 4,000 users that would raise $20,000. Jim Bulger, head of a users group for the course, presented several options, including fees for non-residents to use the course during unused times, adjusting staffing at the course, and changing the repayment schedule for the capital cost of the new administrative and pro shop building.

“People here love this golf course, and they want to do what’s best to make that course viable and affordable for everyone in town, not just those who can afford it,” Mr. Bulger said.

Mr. D’Andrea said the town “definitely” wanted to look at non-resident fees but it’s a legal issue that is currently being worked on so no immediate action could be taken on it. He said he appreciated that “everyone understands we have a good golf course and we will continue to make sure they have the best.” Mr. Siciliano added that management is “not close-minded” and it had tried some of the suggested ideas before and weren’t ready for others yet.

With regard to the reservation plan, Mr. Siciliano said the current system to get those prime tee times on the weekend through computer reservations has seen a lot of the same people getting those times throughout the season through the use of multiple electronic devices. Because of that, his department had thought it could attract those people to pay the fee and have the reservations formalized while also freeing up the current system for use by other players and also increasing revenue for the town in the process.

“I think it’s a total misconception [to say this is semi-privatization],” Mr. Siciliano said. “This is a public course, and if that’s what’s considered semi-privatization, then we already do it when we block out the premium times for shotguns and our user groups. No one can get in those times, and that’s how we already do things.”

 

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