The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Council caves on golf course debt; utilities, bus fares headed up; new vacuum trucks for leaf pickup; monthly downtown parking at 82 percent of pre-flood levels

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser on January 27, 2009 at 11:08 pm

The council’s annual budget work goes on.

It’s a different day, this flood-recovery era. All the numbers seem to be headed up.

Rates on the city’s package of four utilities -– water, waste water treatment/sanitary sewer, storm sewer and solid waste/recycling – are slated to go up 14 percent or $100 a year for the typical homeowner, Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director, proposed to the City Council last night.

Even the number of employees is climbing after years of cuts and after a major City Hall reorganization two years ago that sent some senior management talent packing. Some 30 new employees may be in the offing.

Among the most notable budget items last night had to do with the city’s golf operations.

In the year prior to the 2008 flood, there were few City Hall stories that garnered as much space in the news as one about the city’s Twin Pines Golf Course. The city had floated an idea to sell a piece of the place to raise money to fix it and make other golf course improvements. Golfers and park lovers were incensed, a City Hall task force was convened, and the city idea faded into a bottom drawer somewhere.

Even so, one City Hall position survived: the city golf operation would pay its way with golf fees as it always had done. It would get no general property-tax revenue to help balance its budget, no matter that it faced years of having to pay an annual debt bill in the range of $400,000 to cover the cost of improvements already made to the city’s Jones and Ellis courses.

Well, last night it was as if all of that debate never happened.

With little discussion, the City Council signaled that it will relieve the golf operation of its ongoing annual debt payments and pay those bills with general property taxes.

It was an easy switch of direction. After all, the golf operation’s entire budget was damaged what with the damage that the June flood did to the Jones Park Golf Course. Seventeen of the course’s 18 holes were destroyed, the clubhouse was flooded and the course was closed for the season. It will open this year, though to somewhat limited use, Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, said last night.

Sina noted that the trend here and nationwide continues: Fewer people are playing golf. And Sina predicted that the current recession will keep more people away from the courses this year, too.

City Manager Jim Prosser said the debt taken on in recent years to modernize the Jones and Ellis golf courses was not bad planning. No one could have foreseen golf’s downward trend, he said.

In an effort to lure more golfers to the city courses, the new budget keeps city golf fees where they have been.

Council member Brian Fagan wondered if Prosser and Sina had any plans to present the council with a plan to privatize one or more of the courses. Some other cities have tried such a thing.

Prosser said the council would likely see some information about that, but he added that privatization can be an unwelcome concept in some corners. There were some chilling responses to the idea of privatizing the city’s downtown parking operation, an idea which was set aside when the flood hit last June.

The city’s parking operation, which historically has paid for itself with fees, won’t in the next budget year. The council has given monthly parkers a reduction in fares to encourage businesses to return to the flood-damaged downtown.

Prior to the June flood, the city had 3,422 monthly parkers. It now has about 2,800 or 82 percent of the pre-flood number. The downtown parking system is now at 60-percent capacity. Some 1,800 spaces are available, Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, reported.

Two other budget highlights from last night: City bus fares are headed up from $1 to $1.25 a ride for adults and from 50 cents to 60 cents for seniors.

Fares cover about 15 percent of the cost of operating the city bus system, the city’s Ball told the council last night. One idea to cut costs was to eliminate Saturday bus service, which Ball said has reduced ridership whose fares cover only 6 percent of the cost of the service.

Council members, though, said they wanted to keep the Saturday service and preserve the five jobs that Ball said would be lost without it. Brad DeBrower, the city’s transit chief, said the Saturday service provides between 1,200 and 1,300 rides each Saturday.

For now, too, the council has kept in the proposed budget the purchase of new vacuum trucks that will change the city’s fall leaf pickup program.

With the vacuum trucks, residents no longer will rake leaves into the street, but will rake leaves to the edge of the street where the city trucks would vacuum them up. Without the trucks, Ball said the city would require residents to put all their leaves in Yardy carts of paper bags.

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