Hayden, officials dismiss report on golf courses County could earn more, study says


The Hayden administration has ignored a consultant's study saying that Baltimore County could earn an additional $500,000 a year from its three public golf courses, an author of the study says.

The study suggests altering what it calls a "sweetheart" deal between the county and the three professional golfers who manage its public courses. But the administration insists that it's happy with the current arrangement, which nets the county about $750,000 a year.

That arrangement "really doesn't make much sense from a business point of view," said David K. Wells, an associate of Legg Mason Realty Group, Inc., the lead firm involved in producing the golf study.

County officials and the pros who run the county courses -- Rocky Point in Essex, Diamond Ridge in Woodlawn and Longview in Cockeysville -- say there's not that much profit left for the county to take.

They like the current arrangement, which encourages the three unsalaried golf pros -- who get their income from the pro shops and other operations -- to provide a pleasant golf experience and increase patronage. "In any good business," said Charles L. Fisher Jr., deputy director of recreation and parks, "the harder you work, the more you make."

When told that the consultant estimated his income at $165,000 a year, Longview golf pro Frank Laber laughed. "If that were true, I'd be calling you from my plane," he told a reporter.

Mr. Laber said he earns $40,000 to $50,000 a year by working 70 hours a week managing Longview, the county's oldest golf course. "That's not a problem, because I love my job," he said.

Currently, the county gets about $1.8 million in revenue from its courses against expenses of slightly more than $1 million, for a net profit of about $750,000.

The county gets all of the greens fees -- the charges golfers pay to play a round of golf -- and 35 percent of golf cart rental revenue.

But the other money-making ventures at the golf courses -- the pro shop, the concession stand and the driving range -- are controlled exclusively by the pros who manage the courses.

They keep the profits from those ventures, even though they operate the pro shop and concession stand in county-maintained buildings, free of rent and utility payments. The driving ranges are also maintained by county workers.

Just how much the golf pros make is not certain. The county auditor's staff tried to find out earlier this year, but couldn't. "We'd like to know," said one staff member.

Wayne R. Harman, director of recreation and parks, said he's seen all three golf pros' income tax returns but refused to disclose how much they make. He would only say it's nowhere near the consultant's $165,000 estimate.

As part of their contract with the county, the golf pros receive no salary. They must post a $10,000 bond, buy liability insurance and contribute 5 percent of their cart rental earnings to beautify the courses.

Still, said Mr. Wells, "It really is a good deal for them. It's a great deal. It's really quite amazing in this day and age."

The consultant recommended that the county hire pros to manage the golf courses for a fixed salary and keep all the profits. Mr. Wells estimated the extra income at $500,000 a year or about $165,000 per golf course.

The golf course study, which won recognition from the National Association of Counties and the American Society of Landscape Architects, was commissioned by Robert Staab, director of recreation and parks under former Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen. It cost $102,000.

The report wasn't finished, however, until January 1991 -- two months after Mr. Rasmussen was voted out of office.

Besides suggesting that the county take over all "profit centers" at its golf courses, the report suggested that a non-profit golf board be created to manage the courses, similar to Baltimore's.

Revenues from the county golf courses could be used to build badly needed new courses, according to the report. Baltimore BTC County has only five golf courses open to the general public.

The report noted that thousands of county residents drive to York County, Pa., to play golf, where public courses are more plentiful. By the year 2000, the county could be losing $7 million from players who go elsewhere, the report says.

Instead of following the report, the department of recreation and parks raised the greens fees last spring -- from $7 to $10 weekdays and from $9 to $12 weekends and holidays. It placed $1 from each greens fee into a special golf course development fund.

Mr. Harman said the report essentially asks the county to duplicate what Baltimore did when it created the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation, a non-profit entity that not only runs the city's five golf courses, but keeps the profits.

It was with great difficulty, Mr. Harman noted, that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke got the city's golf corporation to give back some of the profits to the city.

The report, Mr. Harman said, "was written in another era and another administration, where the thought processes were different."

"If I wrote a report, as David Wells did, and the county wasn't using it, I guess my nose would be bent out of shape, too," Mr. Harman said.

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