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Rochester council voices mixed reaction to golf plan

Majority favors keeping four courses in play, but members cite concerns about proposed funding options during review.

Hadley Creek Golf Course
Greg Schalla, of Rochester, spends a sunny morning golfing at Hadley Creek Golf Course on July 12, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin file photo
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ROCHESTER — A majority of the Rochester City Council voiced some level of support Monday for a plan to maintain four city golf courses through increased fees and a steady dedication of tax funds.

“In the end, I’m going to find a way to pass the plan, because it is a plan, and we need something,” council member Nick Campion said during a study session to review the plan that would seek to earmark $100,000 for annual golf operations and $400,000 a year for facility maintenance and upgrades.

Campion and others, however, voiced some concern about dedicating $250,000 a year in property tax revenue for the golf program, starting in 2024.

“It does not come for free,” Campion said, pointing to the potential for cutting funding elsewhere in the park system, if future councils approve the tax dedication each year.

Council President Brooke Carlson also voiced concern, especially as the city prepares its 2023 budget with a potential 5.9% tax levy increase.

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“We can continue to support additional funding for anything, but when it’s in comparison to how big our increases in budget overall are, it’s a different conversation,” she said, pointing to other programs that are expected to increase local tax bills in the future.

Parks and Recreation Director Paul Widman has pointed out the proposed $250,000 won’t be added to the funds currently provided for golf operations and facility improvements. Rather, it would create a steady revenue source.

Since 2015, the city budget has dedicated $102,00 to $241,000 for golf operations, with added funding for tax-funded improvement projects.

The 2023 recommended city budget includes $266,000 in tax funds for golf operations and $80,000 for improvement projects.

Widman said the $250,000 proposal is based on the tax trajectory prior to pandemic-related budget cuts and is expected to fund operation and improvement needs on an annual basis.

Council member Shaun Palmer said he feels the amount is reasonable, pointing out it would cost $4 a year for the average Rochester homeowner and help overcome the effects of reduced spending in the past.

“We have underfunded parks for such a long period of time that we are digging ourselves out of a hole,” he said, adding that he’d like to see the city find more uses for the courses and clubhouses during the off-season.

Parks staff had proposed funding some golf course improvements with funds from the parks referendum passed two years ago, but the council and Rochester Parks Board opted to remove the dedicated funding to provide support in other areas of the parks system.

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A survey conducted by The Morris Leatherman Co. points toward mixed support among Rochester residents for the funding options.

The survey conducted for the city indicated 15% of respondents support paying increased tax dollars to fund the golf program, while 30% stated it should be funded through increased golf fees. Another 22% supported using a combination of the two.

An additional 23% said they’d prefer to maintain the status quo, which would not maintain or upgrade courses, but only 3% stated they would support closing a course.

Peter Leatherman of The Morris Leatherman Co. said the results don’t point to a clear mandate, aside from finding a way to keep the city’s four courses in operation.

The same survey among golfers also pointed toward a split in preferences between increased tax funding, fee increases or a combination of the two.

Widman said the survey results, along with other public engagement, led to the proposed use of tax funds and increased golf fees.

Some council members voiced concerns about both approaches.

“You’ll have families who no longer can play golf, potentially because their fees have risen, and on top of that our tax levy is going up, so it’s kind of a double-whammy on not having access,” council member Molly Dennis said, suggesting the survey results might have been different if those who responded knew what would be proposed.

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Carlson also cited concern about reducing accessibility to the city’s golf program.

“I am supportive of increasing fees with the caveat that we don’t want to increase barriers to those who are potentially faced with less access due to cost,” she said.

Widman said providing discounts beyond age-based fees would likely interfere with the goal of generating an added $250,000 through fees by 2025 and could lead to adding costs for other golfers.

Council member Mark Bransford said not increasing fees could lead to a different accessibility concern.

“If there isn’t an increase and we have to close a golf course, we are going to put more pressure on tee times, and that’s going to decrease access, too,” he said. “This is a balancing act.”

Campion said the main goal should be to establish the plan and tweak it as needed.

“There are affordability gaps in almost everything we charge a fee for in the city,” he said. “We need to solve that universally, and the way we do that is to align fees with service and then to come back and fix the service gap, versus what is affordable.”

Widman said the Parks and Recreation Department already sees community participation in helping reduce costs for young golfers through the First Tee program at the Hadley Creek Golf Course and Learning Center.

He said the program costs approximately $80,000 a year, with roughly $26,000 funded by the city and additional funds provided through community fundraising and volunteer efforts.

“Municipal golf is generally the response to making golf affordable,” he said, noting it’s an alternative to more expensive private clubs.

Widman said no date has been set to bring the plan to the City Council for final approval.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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