Ben Geren golf cart lease plan draws opposition from JP Looper

story by Ryan Saylor

The lease of 70 new golf carts for Ben Geren Regional Park's golf course has one member of the Sebastian County Quorum Court crying foul.

Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper said the annual payments of $32,477 to replace the fleet are irresponsible considering the number of rounds played at the golf course have steadily dropped since 2007.

"Since 2007, the number of golfers, the number of rounds has gone down 30%, so I'm not sure why you need that number of golf carts," he said.

The number of rounds played at the golf course have gone from 34,814 in 2007 to 22,331 played in 2013, according to figures provided to the Quorum Court by Sebastian County Judge David Hudson's office. The figures represent a 35.86% decline in the number of rounds. The same document outlines the total number of golf cart rentals during the same period. From 2007 to 2013, the number of rentals fell from 24,428 to 17,167. The decline represents a drop of 29.72% in golf cart rentals during the six year period.

With the decrease in the number of rounds and rentals, Looper said the number of golf carts replaced should be lower than the 70 under consideration at Tuesday evening's (July 15) meeting, which will be the third and final vote on the appropriation.

According to Looper, leasing the high number of carts is not a wise fiscal move in light of the declining rounds and rentals and considering that the county would not own the golf carts in use at the county-owned facility. Instead, he said the county should purchase a small number of golf carts that would provide some level of equity that would translate into trade-in value should the carts need to be replaced again in the future.

"I guess I would look for a smaller number of golf carts, maybe purchase 25 golf carts outright," he said.

Hudson said the purchase of 25 golf carts would total $55,000. Purchasing a smaller overall fleet of vehicles — as some members of the Quorum Court have previously advocated during meetings, including Looper — would also reduce revenues during peak play times, he added.

"I asked (my staff) to look at the records on the golf cart rentals based on peak play and how many carts we get out," he said. "They've done that and we feel like if we conservatively reduce our fleet size to 50 (carts) that would cost anywhere from $20,000 to $25,000 in revenue (annually). And you need the carts for tournaments and peak play."

He added that the lease rate, which would total $129,908 over the life of the four-year contract, would be a more prudent financial move for the county.

Ben Geren Golf Course has been a source of contention in recent months as the county has looked for ways to improve cash flow at the property. A September 2013 report by The City Wire showed how the golf course was on track to run at a $150,000 deficit for the county.

To address the deficit, ideas were floated by the Sebastian County Parks Advisory Council, which included exploring the possibility of obtaining a permit to sell alcohol at the club house. The idea was eventually canned by the Quorum Court.

The county also requested bids from firms to manage the golf course and reduce the financial obligation of the local government to the property. It did not go as expected, with only one golf course management company bidding for the contract. The company, Cypress Golf Management of Orlando, Fla., proposed charging the county $6,000 monthly while leaving the county on the hook for facility upkeep and other day-to-day costs. The bid was eventually rejected in favor of leaving Ben Geren Golf Course under its current management structure.

The latest move to try to improve the financial health of the golf course was in March of this year, with a change to the fee structure for customers. The changes included the introduction of an annual unlimited golf plan at a rate of $1,200 per year, with individuals age 62 or older receiving a 10% discount.

In spite of the change in rate structures, Hudson said the golf course was still expected to lose more than $94,000 this year.

Looper said the total loss could be worse based on continued drops in patronage.

"Between 2007 and 2013, you lost a third of your golfers. If you have 2014 looking better (in terms of rounds), that would make me feel better. But you don't. May was down 9% over (the same period) last year. So you have the same decline over the last 10 years. You don't have a plateau or leveling. It's still going down even with all the things that supposedly have been done to make it better."

Looper said his fight against the golf carts is not about anything other than protecting the general fund, which funds not only the golf course but most other county offices and services. And he said if the finances do not improve at the golf course even with the cheaper lease on the golf carts and the change in rates, he is not opposed to closing the golf course.

"There's always the alternative of shutting it down. You wouldn't necessarily have to turn it over to somebody (like would have happened if the management proposal had not been rejected). But it could just be shut down," he said. "As it continues to have more and more affect on the general fund, I think they'll be forced to (shut it down). My concern is now with the golf course, you're into cost cutting to make the overall revenue look better. At some point, I think that will hurt us. In the end, the revenue will fall even further is what I'm anticipating."

And it is that fall that he said will impact all other county offices and the county employees.

"I don't want to deficit spend out of the general fund for the golf course. It affects every other office of the county. It affects raises for employees, (the purchase of needed sheriff's department) patrol cars. Any loss, any money we have to put into keeping the golf course open, it comes out of the general fund. Even if you like the golf course, you have to realize it is taking money from the other departments."

Hudson, who confirmed that he and Looper have had private discussions about the situation at the golf course, acknowledged the needs of other departments.

"I very well understand that the general fund, and all of the different areas of interest for the general fund dollars, are competing with one another for those. And it's hard to justify recreation dollars against operating the jail, ambulance (service) and all the others. I understand that. But we're working to be responsible in how we address this. Hopefully that's how it'll be viewed."

As for whether he would ever come to the point of recommending closure of the golf course as Looper thinks could happen, Hudson said he did not foresee coming to the point of recommending closure to the Quorum Court.

"The issue is to look at the investment. The taxpayer investment that we have in the golf course. Is it a responsible course of action to close it? Because it is a valuable asset. So considering that perspective, I'm not at that point in time right now. But I have been dealing with the debate on the funding of the golf course and concerns about the golf course on and off for 20 years and I think that Shawn Looper has been consistent in his concern over the golf course over a long period of time. There are valid arguments on both sides, but I'm not at that point in 2014 and hopefully we'll see things continue to stabilize."

The third and final vote on approving the golf cart appropriation and lease contract will take place Tuesday (July 15) at 7 p.m. in the second floor courtroom of the Sebastian County Courthouse, located at 35 South 6th Street in Fort Smith.