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Municipal Golf Courses Have Taxpayers Tee'd-Off

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"Have you ever noticed what golf spells backwards?" writer Al Balska once joked. Taxpayers whose wallets have been flogged by money-losing municipal courses understand that old chestnut all too well.

B.C. cities have no reason to spend taxpayer dollars on municipal golf courses to compete with a private sector that is already struggling to stay financially viable.

Two municipal courses have come under fire this spring after revealing just how much of a money pit golf can be for property taxpayers.

In Saanich, Victoria, city councillors voted to shut down a restaurant at Cedar Hill golf course to shave $98,000 off a projected $818,000 deficit in 2012.

In Abbotsford, city councillors voted to bail out the non-profit society that runs Ledgeview, their municipal course, with a $115,000 "one-time grant."

"We need to learn how to say no," lamented Abbotsford councillor Henry Braun as he realized his colleagues were going to approve the Ledgeview payout. Braun was bang-on; councillors likely wouldn't invest a nickel of their own money into Ledgeview, but they are more than happy to put yours into it.

Abbotsford and Saanich leaders have missed the simplest way of fixing this problem: getting taxpayers out of the golf game all together. Rather than rewarding poor financial performance with more tax dollars, they should sell their courses or, at the very least, contract out operations to professional golf club operators.

Over the past two weeks, taxpayers across B.C. have opened their property tax bills and likely wondered what kind of value they get for the dollars they send to city hall. It's one thing for taxes to go to essentials like water, sewer or public safety, it's another thing to know you're subsidizing luxuries like municipal golf courses. If you can find a service listed on YellowPages.ca, government shouldn't be providing it.

These municipal courses compete against legitimate businesses which don't have the ability to requisition dollars from your pocket through taxes in order to cover any losses. While a private operator has to pay property taxes, a city just eats that loss on their own course. It's a double bogey for taxpayers: lost property tax revenue and subsidies for failing municipal courses.

Amusingly, Abbotsford city staff blamed Ledgeview's losses on "poor weather," but say they have a plan to overcome that: "Good weather, better controls and continually challenging current practices are being worked on." One wonders how many tax dollars are going to be spent by bureaucrats to improve the weather in Abbotsford!

Even tiny municipal courses are losing money -- par-three, nine-hole Juan de Fuca course, owned and subsidized by West Shore regional taxpayers on Vancouver Island, lost $23,000 last year. That's not surprising when one considers that the number of rounds played at Juan de Fuca plummeted from 33,533 in 2009 to 24,327 last year.

Golf revenues are slowly on the decline across Canada. In 2008, golf courses and country clubs brought in $2.5 billion; in 2010, that had fallen by $48 million. Industry experts say that many areas have 30 per cent too many golf courses.

It's no wonder that more Canadian cities are getting out of golf. Thunder Bay, Ontario, for example, voted earlier this spring to close a municipal golf course, saving their taxpayers $4 million over 20 years. After years of harassment by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, even Winnipeg is in the midst of an excruciating, but inexorable, march toward selling off some of their courses.

Saanich, Abbotsford, West Shore and other municipalities should do the same. Sell off the municipal courses and put that money into core priorities in their community or, better yet, back in their taxpayers' pockets.