For what is usually known to be a fairly relaxing sport, golf in Winnipeg has become a focal point of controversy and contention over the past two years.
The question of whether to keep our city's municipal golf courses public, sell the land to developers, or to lease the management of the courses to private interests has exploded into the public forum over the past weeks due largely to what many believe is another slip-up in a series of controversial "mistakes" in the mayor's office.
In mid-May, the city launched its "Responsible Winnipeg" advertising campaign, claiming the city's public golf courses are an "8.4 million dollar trap."
If one ignores the fact the campaign was launched with the apparent intention of deceiving Winnipeggers and without knowledge or approval from anyone other than the mayor, deputy mayor and chief administrative officer, then one might ask whether our golf courses are assets or liabilities.
Two general questions can be asked: Are public golf courses valuable city services? And are public golf courses actually losing money?
To address the first issue, approximately 8,000 signatures were presented to the city by the grassroots group Outdoor Urban Recreation Spaces, calling on the city to keep golf courses public.
The arguments presented by OURS (many of whom are golfers) highlight that our golf courses offer affordable golfs to the community while at the same time preserving historic parkland and valuable urban green space.
While golf numbers are presently down across Canada, there is huge potential to re-involve the community in this accessible physical activity, especially for Winnipeg's older adults.
Addressing the second issue is more complex, and is the most asked question of all: Does golf lose money?
The answer is "no."
Public golf has been operated by Winnipeg Golf Services special operating agency since 2003.
Prior to that, WGS was a self-sufficient service operated course-by-course. In 2003, when it became an SOA, it began paying property taxes on the green space that courses occupy. This means, essentially, that the city is taxing its own property and transferring approximately 35 per cent to 40 per cent of revenues back into the general revenues.
While in 2011 WGS direct revenues exceeded direct expenses by $107,000, the transfers back to the city create the illusion golf courses are in the red.
While other years have seen ups-and-downs in revenues and expenses, they are hardly the shocking numbers pushed by the mayor.
The current bidder for the lease of our golf courses, GolfNorth, vows to inject roughly $4 million into capital repairs (over 20 years, about $50,000 annually).
Since 1995, however, golfers contributed a $1-per-round course-improvement levy to help keep the facilities up to par.
But in 2003, when the city created the SOA, this course improvement fund was raided and transferred to general revenues.
Had the city maintained the course improvement fund and invested it into the golf courses as intended, the value would be well over $3.6 million. The city proposal would also allow the company to set its own green fees, increasing the cost of golf and making it a less affordable activity for many Winnipeggers.
At the end of the day, the city has allowed the courses to starve themselves through the SOA, while at the same time eroding the infrastructure by draining the course improvement fund. This has allowed the mayor to assert that the golf courses are beyond repair and the buck should be passed to the private sector.
In response to scrutiny from the public and the union, he and his deputy launched a deceptive ad campaign, costing taxpayers in Winnipeg an additional $90,000.
As the employees who service Winnipeg, including WGS, we have been very vocal in our opposition to the sale or lease of public golf courses and equally opposed to privatization in general.
We have seen time-and-time again privatization leads to higher costs, service cuts and no accountability. Many city councillors have also expressed similar opposition and community groups like OURS have helped inform and mobilize the public about the importance of keeping golf courses public. One thing is certain: Winnipeggers are teed off with the way the city is handling this file.
Mike Davidson is president of CUPE
Local 500, representing 3,000 of
Winnipeg's municipal employees.