Mayor eyes golf course revenue as budget stopgap

An already contentious battle over a proposal for higher greens fees and new facilities at city golf courses got even more complex when Mayor Jerry Sanders stepped in to question the enterprise fund that pays for the courses.

The five-year plan for the city’s three golf courses, including Torrey Pines, was set to come before the Natural Resources and Culture Committee of the City Council last month before Sanders said he needed more time to study the issue. Among the more controversial aspects of the plan is the proposed construction of a new, $13 million clubhouse at Torrey Pines.

At past public meetings to discuss the golf plan, many golfers who use the course have said that a new clubhouse is unnecessary. They argue that since Torrey Pines is a municipal course, the first priority should be keeping greens fees low for city residents and that the clubhouse money would be better spent that way.

Now the discussion has taken on an entirely new dimension, as the nature of the enterprise fund that pays for the golf courses has come into question by Sanders and his staff.

Enterprise funds, by California law, exist outside of a city’s general fund. They generate fees for services such as water and sewer and the money collected is then put directly back into those services. Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Sanders, said that the mayor’s office’s initial review indicates that the city’s golf enterprise fund does not fall under that description.

“The golf enterprise fund is not an enterprise fund like water and sewer,” he said. “It’s really part of the general fund, more of an accounting mechanism than a true enterprise fund. It rolls up into the general fund.”

Sainz said that given the city’s financial condition, a decision to commit part of the general fund to a new clubhouse at Torrey Pines would have to be carefully considered.

“We’re not making a judgement about whether the clubhouse is a good or bad idea,” said Sainz. “We’re taking a look at how wise or unwise it would be to have the general fund serve as collateral.”

Mayor Sanders refused to comment personally on the golf course revenue issue.

With the city currently unable to access the public bond market due to ongoing audits, the city would have to obtain private placement for the clubhouse, which would make it more expensive, according to Sainz.

“That would be putting the mayor in a situation where he has to go to the public and say, ‘We can’t get your water and sewer projects on track, but by gosh we found a way to build a golf clubhouse first.’ It doesn’t seem right, and people would lose confidence in the mayor.”

Sainz said Sanders had not yet made his own decision on whether a new clubhouse at Torrey Pines is a good idea. He said the golf plan would eventually come before the Natural Resources and Culture committee again, but he couldn’t say when.

That raises the issue of timing. The South Course at Torrey Pines is set to host the U.S. Open golf tournament in 2008, and the course wants the new clubhouse ready by then. The clubhouse would have to be approved soon in order for it to be completed in time, but course spokesman Steve Pelzer said the course had no idea when the approval process might get back on track.

“We have no updates,” he said. “We wish we did.”

Sainz said the new clubhouse was not part of the city’s bid to host the U.S. Open and that the tournament deadline would not be a consideration in the mayor’s decision.

The five-year golf plan calls for resident weekday greens fees at Torrey Pines’ North Course to rise 37 percent to $40 by 2011. The weekend rates would rise 47 percent to $54. The city cannot raise the green fees at the course until a year after the Open is held, as part of a rule to discourage price gouging. But after the tournament, the plan calls for resident weekday greens fees to rise 57 percent to $58 by 2011, and resident weekend fees to rise 75 percent to $79 by 2011. Non-resident weekend fees for the South Course would increase to $213 by 2011.

Access to tee times at Torrey Pines has also been a major part of the debate. Former City Councilman Michael Zucchet, a member of the Torrey Pines men’s club, appeared at a city Golf Advisory Council meeting in February and addressed the council about tee times that have been held since 1991 by the pro shop at the course. Zucchet said there was no real reason the pro shop should continue to hold the times.

Torrey Pines Club Corp., which operates the pro shop, recently announced it would relinquish the tee times, freeing up 12 weekday tee times and five weekend tee times.