Madison Golf Courses Drowning in Water and Debt

Possibly the least surprising thing about the City of Madison is that it forces taxpayers to subsidize golf, and city-run golf courses are money pits. #wiright #wipolitics #PayForMyGolf Click To Tweet

January 22, 2018

A MacIver Perspective by Abby Streu

MADISON, Wis. – I like to go to the shooting range in my free time to fire off my gun. It’s my hobby. Range fees, however, are pricey, especially when you’re shooting every Thursday night. I need to allot money every week to do this, as the City of Madison is not subsidizing my trips. The same goes with just about every hobby under the sun.

Except golf.

The City of Madison has been running golf courses since the 1920s. Over the decades these operations have expanded and today, they’ve become a major strain on the annual budget. Right now there are four publicly-owned golf courses in Madison—Yahara Hills, Monona, Odana Hills and Glenway. These courses are all in need of updating and repair, financial analysts say, to make them “profitable.”

However, this is not a situation of what a government “wants.” Rather that citizens are not entitled to golf and taxpayers should not be expected to pay for it.

Public courses aim to reduce range fees for constituents, but the combination of low revenue for the system and disrepair on the courses will cause approximately $329,000 in losses annually, according to the City’s Subcommittee on Golf. Out of the past nine years, eight have run a deficit.

In general, the City’s golf system is a mess, and Yahara Hills Golf Course is the biggest offender. The 36-hole park was built on swampland, causing it to flood every year. It was also built across the street from a landfill. Repairs to fix the water damage and updates to prevent future problems at Yahara Hills alone would cost $4 million.

Total costs to repair the entire golf system range from $5.9 to $8.6 million, so regardless of whether putting greens are closed, the subcommittee claims they need a couple million dollars to invest into the system for any sort of financial stability.

At one point in time, total revenue for the courses exceeded total costs, and so public dollars were not being wasted every year. However, golf is on the downfall. Since 2002, the number of players has been decreasing. According to a report released in December 2017 by the Edgehill Golf Advisors, golf demand for the Madison area will remain constant for a few more years before declining. The system is proving that it cannot sustain itself. Why feed taxpayer dollars into a game that citizens are losing interest in?

Madison's commitment to subsidizing golf is financially unsustainable. City looking at $5.9 to $8.6M in expenses just to keep 4 city-run courses operational. #wiright #wipolitics Click To Tweet

If a government is to take some of their citizens’ hard-earned money, it needs to be using that money in responsible ways. Funding the debt from golf courses or providing subsidies to update those golf courses is not helping citizens. If a local government is justified in funding anything, it would be operations that help constituents in genuine need. Let private citizens own and manage businesses that are meant to be in the private sector.

Additionally, using this land for golf is also stripping the city of an additional revenue source—additional resources they could use to fund more useful public services. Yahara Hills alone consumes 400 acres of city land. In 2016, Madison citizens were assessed to pay approximately $24 per $1,000 dollars of property value in taxes to the City. Madison is throwing out this potential income from taxes.

While the financial state of the courses are good evidence that this system is failing, it does not matter if the courses are making money or losing it. The government should not build and run unnecessary operations. The reality is, even if the courses were running balanced budgets, the city would still be putting time and labor into the golf system. This is an inefficient use of government resources.

It is needless for golf ranges to be publicly owned. There are a dozen private courses in the Madison area that are having business taken away by their City. According to Forbes, this is also leading towards increased range fees in the private sector. Local governments should be promoting local businesses, not stealing away clientele while flooding taxpayer dollars into a bleeding system.

Golf courses should be closed and the Subcommittee on Golf should be disbanded. The committee members should be redistributed to more pertinent committees that benefit the greater good of the city.

Subcommittee chairman Dan Smith explained the ultimate choice for the city was “to decide if they want to provide golf to its residents or not.”

However, this is not a situation of what a government “wants.” Rather, that citizens are not entitled to golf and taxpayers should not be expected to pay for it.