You Paid For It Investigation: How Local Taxpayers Subsidize Golfers’ Greens Fees

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There’s no question that high property taxes in the Rockford area are a problem.  The website tax-rates.org says Winnebago County has the highest real property tax rates in the state.  And we learned that some of that tax money is going to supplement golfers who play at Rockford Park District courses, a game fewer and fewer people are playing.

The Park District meticulously maintains five courses, Aldeen, Elliott, Sandy Hollow, Sinnissippi, and Ingersoll.  But no matter what course they play, golfers are seeing a lot more empty fairways and greens. because Park District figures show that fewer and fewer people want to golf Rockford.  Their figures show that from more than 166,000 rounds in 2010 to just under 124,000 rounds in 2014 (final numbers for 2015 are not in yet, but the Park Districts estimates a drop in rounds of about 1% from 2014).

Total Park District Golf Rounds
2010:  166,819
2011:  146,213
2012:  157,499
2013:   140,689
2014:   123,612

Bill Rose is one of those local golfers who’s driving and putting less.  “Just trying to find the time,” he says.  “I used to play quite a bit when I was younger, but between kids and school and trainings and working on vacations, its hard to get out sometimes.”

Fewer players making golf a money-losing game.  The Park District losing nearly $1.3 million on golf from 2010 to 2014.

PARK DISTRICT LOSSES ON GOLF
2010:  -$85,530
2011:  -$269,786
2012:  -$239,024
2013:  -$341,376
2014:  -$356,268
Total:  -$1,291,984

And when it comes to teeing off on taxpayers’ dime, one course stands above the rest.  Aldeen.  It’s the Park District’s premiere golf course, the most expensive to maintain, and the least played of any Park District course.

17,634 rounds in 2014, or 14.3% of the rounds played at Park District courses.  Sandy Hollow had nearly double that number.

NUMBER OF ROUNDS PLAYED PER PARK DISTRICT COURSE, 2014
SANDY. HOLLOW:  30,808,  24.9%
ELLIOT:                    28,053, 22.7%
SINNISSIPPI:           27,176,  22.0%
INGERSOLL:          19,941, 16.1%
ALDEEN:                 17,634,  14.3%

Golfers we spoke with say it’s because Aldeen is too difficult and too expensive for the casual player.

Golfer Kerry Smith tells us, “Frankly, Aldeen is a little intimidating to people who don’t play a lot.”

Bill Rose adds that, “Probably the socio-economic issues here in Rockford with people.  They want affordable golf, and it is affordable, but it is the most expensive of the courses that are the public courses.”

Bob Puckett is regular golfer who plays Aldeen only occasionally.  “Aldeen is kind of a treat I play once or twice a year.”

Everything at Aldeen is higher end, and Park District Director of Golf Duncan Geddes says when Aldeen was built in the 90’s, upscale was the whole idea.  He says, “… it was part of Mr. Aldeen’s original vision was to not build a similar course similar to what we had, but to provide a premium upscale course.”

Costing more than a million dollars a year to maintain, far more than any other Park District course, but back in the 90’s, it was a money making move.  The course attracting plenty of big spending players from all over the region, but soon, Geddes says other competing courses were built too.  “There’s been over a dozen that’s opened.”   All now competing for fewer golfers who are playing less.  “The hard-core players who stick with the game are also playing less golf,” Geddes says.

Meaning that according to our analysis of Park District figures, golfers on average paid in 2014 about $41 for each round at Aldeen while taxpayers picked up another $17.

Geddes says the Park District has instituted several cost cutting and revenue producing measures, including a 30% reduction in full-time staff, cutting out the golf hall of fame, and adding foot golf, golf boards and bikes, and developing a new youth golf facility to grow traffic.  “We’re hoping we’ve hit bottom,” he says.

But he’s not considering closing Aldeen,  which our analysis show would save taxpayers at minimum of $290,000 a year, and likely much more because many golfers who play Aldeen would just play on other Park District courses instead.

For now Geddes is committed to a 5 golf course commitment.  “Especially over the last two years with our reorganization, are addressing it through reducing cost. to the point where our five-course operation is a break even”

And if he can’t, Geddes still will not commit to closing his biggest money losing course, but he is asking taxpayers for time.  “I would say for many many years,  golf made money above and beyond that, and now that’s not, is a tax subsidy needed?  For the moment, but as I said, within a short period of time, our goal is to get it to the point where that is not needed.”

We should note that every golfer we asked was surprised to learn their greens fees did not cover the full cost of operations.

Geddes says because of cuts, losses on golf will be down at the end of the 2015 budget year.

As for other options to outright closing Aldeen, some municipal courses have been turned over to management companies to reduce their burden to taxpayers, but Geddes says those companies typically make money by cutting corners, and he’s not in favor of doing that.

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