Analysis by Dean Silver

A links style golf course

The Golf course subcommittee of the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department met for just under an hour and a half on Thursday, April 28.  You can view the meeting packet here https://www.ashland.or.us/SIB/files/APRC/2022/APRC%20Commission/04_28_2022_GolfCourseCommittee_Packet.pdf 

APR has not made the meeting video public as of this posting, so I have made my recording of the meeting available on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/NlxFI_Pzosc

There were only two members in attendance, Brad DeForest and Nancy Rothermel.  Also present were APR Director Michael Black, Deputy Director Rachel Dials, interim Course Manager Haley Fasnacht, and APR Commissioner Jim Lewis.  Rick Landt made a brief appearance via cellphone, and Business Manager Sean Sullivan and Administrative Analyst Tara Kiewel were also monitoring the proceedings.  They were there to consider how to move forward with the golf course, given the staffing and funding and water problems it is dealing with.

What did they decide?  Some might say nothing, but that might be too simplistic.  Some would say they just kicked the can down the road, but that might be too cynical.  I would say that they decided to simply stay the course, and hope for the best.

An Intractable Dilemma?

The Oak Knoll Municipal Golf Course has been struggling.  Although it is an enterprise type operation, it has not turned a profit or broken even any time within recent memory.  It is subsidized by the APR budget to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars every year.

It lost its Golf Pro, Patrick Oropallo, at the end of March to pursue other opportunities.  Patrick has been universally praised for his work at the course, improving its condition, utilization, and bottom line.  Haley Fasnacht has taken his place as manager, but she is scheduled to leave for other opportunities in June.  Meanwhile, the City Manager, Joe Lessard, has instituted a citywide hiring freeze.  Nevertheless, staff assured us that they will find a way to shuffle personnel around to maintain coverage.

The greatest challenge facing the course, however, is the drought.  The course depends upon Talent Irrigation District water from the Ashland Canal to maintain the greens and fairways.  That water was only available for a limited run last year, and appears to be headed for another short season this year.

APR’s response to the lack of ditch water last year was to substitute potable city water, to the tune of $49,046 for FY 2021, and $72,671 for only the first half of FY 2022, or a total of $121,717.  The combined budget for golf course water for FY 2021 and the entirety of FY 2022 was $37,752.  You can see a more complete discussion of APR water use at https://theashlandchronicle.com/water-water-everywhere-but-not-a-drop-to-drink/ .

Many, if not most, people agree that climate change portends more drought years to come.  Given that projection, ditch water is likely to be limited in the future, as it has been for the past two years.  Faced with the unavailability or scarcity of ditch water, how will the course be irrigated?  Many, if not most, people also agree that using treated municipal drinking water is an egregious use of that precious resource.

And if the course can’t be irrigated, can it be a viable operation?

Possible Solutions

Michael Black began the conversation.  He first discussed the possibility of using effluent for irrigation, and all of the problems with that approach, including lack of infrastructure and previous demands on that “wastewater”.  He concluded that effluent was not a viable option for now.

Bret DeForest raised the possibility of trucking effluent or other water to the course.  Black enumerated the challenges with that approach, but promised to look into it, and report at the next APRC meeting.

Next, Black discussed drilling a well, and concluded that it was also not a viable option for now.

Fundraising was next up.  He assured the listeners that if funds were raised, APR would do their best to use them, but there was no guarantee that water would be available for purchase in any case.

Funding from the APRD budget was presented and summarily dismissed, due to the “drought of funding”. Black stated that it wouldn’t be feasible to take money from other APR projects to water the golf course, since the entire department is faced with ongoing reductions to its budget. He made it clear that the final decision would be up to the Parks Commission, and that he was simply expressing his personal opinion.

Despite that statement, Bret DeForest again raised the possibility of finding additional savings in the APR budget.  Black stated that those cuts and savings were in progress and ongoing.  Rick Landt appeared via his cellphone and enumerated the future cuts required by the City Manager, the increase in Central Services Funds in the current budget, and the reduction of property tax millage in the previous budget.  At that point his connection was lost. I will be thoroughly debunking some of those recurring specious arguments in future articles dealing with the history of APR’s funding.

Black went on to bemoan the lack of funding from the city and the decrease of staffing during his tenure.  He continues to repeat the same staffing arguments that I have already thoroughly debunked here: https://theashlandchronicle.com/fact-checking-apr-the-directors-covid-staffing-claim/

Black summarized the situation: “We do not know that the golf course has to close. What we know is that we cannot afford to water the golf course with city water. That’s what we know. OK? We also know that we’re having some staffing issues that we think we can work those things out.”

Committee and Staff Comments

Nancy Rothermel pointed out that this is not a short term problem, and that long term solutions must be considered “no matter what happens this summer if we’re gonna have a golf course at all.”   DeForest concurred, suggesting converting the course to a links style course.  That would allow the fairways to revert to a more natural state, eliminating the necessity for as much water as has historically been used.  Black’s response was that a redesign like that would be a good use of CIP funds.

He went on to state the obvious: if people stop playing the course because conditions are poor, that will make any cost recovery more difficult, and could require at least partial closing of the course. He also made clear that even if the course had to close, the area would still be usable as a park, the driving range and practice greens could remain open, and general maintenance would need to continue. 

The one thing that everyone agreed upon was that the golf course is open.  Both subcommittee members complained that many people they talk to think that the course is closing.  Jim Lewis referred to it as “conspiracy talk”.  Everyone wants to emphasize that, at this time, the golf course remains open.

The Staffing Problem

Rachel Dials pointed out that since the current manager will be leaving in mid June, they are anticipating using temporary staffing for that position, again indicating but not explicitly stating that is another problem to deal with.  The discussion implied that there is no qualified replacement on staff.  Meanwhile, the City Manager has instructed in a memo that:

All currently vacant positions funded in the General Fund will remain vacant unless the City Manager has given written permission to fill them. Any position that becomes vacant in the future will also need written authorization to be filled.

Thus, APR will not be able to hire a new manager without authorization.  It is possible that the City Manager would grant an exception in this case.  However, it seems unlikely that a new hire would be interested in the job considering that the course could cease operations at any time.

Apparently, APR may simply need to reassign and train one of its current employees.

The Budget Overrun

The golf division budget is in a shambles due to the extensive use of city water for irrigation and the cost associated with it.  One of the other spending restrictions implemented by the City Manager was:

All General Fund personnel vacancy savings that have occurred to-date in the current fiscal year (2021-2022) are not available to the departments for other expenditures. Departments should take steps to minimize their expenditures in materials and services for the balance of the current fiscal year. These savings are needed to balance the General Fund.

The chart below was provided in the agenda package, prepared by APR staff, but its ramifications were not discussed.  In it, we can see that the M&S component of the golf division already shows a $38,653 overrun.  There is no way APR can recover that spending.  Under normal circumstances, the department would simply reassign the surplus from personnel to M&S.  But the City Manager has forbade that approach.

What this means is that the deficit in M&S will have to carry over to the second year of the biennial budget, adding an additional restriction on how APR can deal with their golf course funding issues.  And this is entirely due to the excessive use of– and expenditures for– potable city water which should have never been used for irrigation in the first place.

Public Forum

John Maurer bemoaned that the well drilling option was “dismissed out of hand more or less.” He termed the reasons for not considering it “somewhat disingenuous in some ways”, and to not consider it as part of a long term solution “shortsighted”.

Jim Hatton spoke next. He offered some changes to the motion to be discussed, spoke to the lack of accurate data, and bemoaned the perception that APR has “given up” on the golf course.

The Motions

Michael Black of course cannot make a motion for any action or recommendation by the subcommittee, but he did offer the following suggestion:

I move to recommend that the golf course remain operational until such a time that available water, staffing, or financial resources are not sufficient to maintain the course to the minimal acceptable level for most golf course participants and if closed an evaluation of the property will be undertaken to determine the potential long-term use of the property which would include golf as an option.

That verbiage, combined with the rest of the presentation, seems to reinforce the perception that APR management and staff have little hope for the golf course to be able to maintain normal operations for the rest of this year. 

The rest of the participants, however, had a very different take on the situation.  They were not willing to accept that attitude, nor the motion proposed by Director Black.

Commissioner Jim Lewis gave a long, impassioned statement supporting the course and its benefits as an amenity.  He said that the motion “seems a bit severe because it talks not about attempting to keep it open for the short term, but it talks about some ultimate other use of it…”

Lewis made one comment that really caught my attention. He said, “We’ve probably subsidized everybody’s golf out there, the citizens of Ashland have probably thrown in a good thirty cents to help you guys golf because, because we think it’s important to subsidize the course.”

I can’t say if he was being sarcastic or simply making that up, but that kind of reasoning is a serious part of the problem at APR.  Thirty cents per citizen would pencil out to about $6,000.  The actual subsidy varies each year, but it is roughly forty to sixty times that amount.

But whether the subsidy is $0.30 or $18 per citizen is beside the point.  The problem here is the hyperbole, the complete disregard for the facts, the tendency of APR to cite costs and statistics that are simply fabricated out of thin air.

Of course the question of whether the golf course should be self-supporting or not deserves careful consideration.  But that question pales in the face of the basic immediate problem: insufficient water to support the golf course in its current configuration.

Bret DeForest also made a statement strongly supporting the course, and suggesting that it was inappropriate for the golf subcommittee to be considering other uses of the golf course property.

Since neither of the subcommittee members nor the commission liaison were happy with the proposed motion, Brad DeForest ultimately proposed “the golf course subcommittee is looking to maintain the golf course long term, and in the short term find ways to (?) and long term look at alternative solutions for future drought.”  That motion was seconded and passed 3-0.

The Bottom Line

So there were no new solutions offered, but there was an acknowledgment that well drilling might help in the long term.

Everyone was encouraged by the recent rainfall (as is everyone in town), and were hopeful that the water situation might not be as dire as feared. 

Staff seemed cautiously pessimistic about the prospects for staying open for this entire season, given the all of the headwinds: drought, staffing, funding, smoke….  But the subcommittee members were unanimous in their desire to do whatever it takes to keep the course open. They managed to pass a motion to that effect, and that will be their recommendation to the entire Parks and Rec Commission, who will have a study session next week (May 4).

The next shot is the Commission’s.