Budget scrutiny turns to golf course

NAUGATUCK — Municipal budget watchdogs once again have their eyes set on the publicly-owned Hop Brook Golf Course.

Matt Katra, a former Board of Finance member who spearheaded the petition campaign that led to the crushing rejection last week of the proposed borough budget at a referendum, says the nine-hole course is one of the main areas where officials need to find savings.

“The golf course needs to become revenue-neutral,” he said, as he has many times over the course of the past year. “The bottom line is this is a business that is losing money, and if it were a private business, it would have closed a long time ago.”

His view is shared by many in the community but opposed by several others who view the course as a recreational opportunity for residents, not one that is intended to generate revenue. While there have been debates about golf course funding for several years, no officials have made a motion to eliminate the course from the budget.

Whether that will happen this year remains to be seen. Residents have an opportunity to discuss the budget proposal during a hearing at 6:30 p.m. Monday at City Hill Middle School. The golf course is expected to be discussed.

Mayor Robert Mezzo said he does not support closing Hop Brook or privatizing it. He also says it’s one of the few recreational activities in Naugatuck that actually generates revenue.

Revenue from the golf course has been shrinking over the past five years, as it has at many golf courses nationwide, a trend that is blamed in large part on the state of the economy. Naugatuck spent $507,085 on the golf course in fiscal year 2012-13 and took in $388,619 in revenue, down from $430,422 in 2007-08. The net loss last year was $118,466.

Borough Controller Bob Butler said while the final numbers have yet to be calculated, it appears the course will have slightly more revenue in the 2013-14 fiscal year than it did the year prior.

“As long as the golf course is operating efficiently and making attempts to improve in terms of cutting expenditures and generating revenue, I don’t have an issue with continuing to support it,” Mezzo said, adding that Jesse Camille’s Restaurant, which the borough leases, relies on the golf course. The restaurant pays Naugatuck $17,000 a year.

He also said people have not been clear about whether they want to privatize the course or just stop using it. There are, he said, “serious logistical issues” since people paid for memberships and there are employee ramifications.

While he’s not sold on privatizing the course, he is willing to entertain seeking requests for qualifications from an outside entity that may be willing to run the course as a private business. Burgess Bob Neth, who said he supports the course, brought that up during Thursday’s budget meeting so that officials can get a better idea of whether anyone would be willing to invest in the course. Katra said he was intrigued by the idea.

Mezzo said other communities have tried to privatize their public courses, with little success. He pointed to the city of Hartford, which privatized its courses years ago and just took them back because privatization did not work. And the mayor is reluctant to sell the property because he fears more densely populated housing units could go into an area that already has several.

Public Works Director Jim Stewart noted that about $50,000 is being eliminated from the golf course budget because the course is losing half a position through early retirements. The savings comes from salary and benefits, he said.

“I don’t understand when you have a facility that is costing you $50,000 to $100,000 a year or slightly more, and there are discussions to cut it when the other parks facilities in town cost us about $1 million and generate no revenue,” he said.

Stewart also noted, as did golf course commission Chairman Pat Corbett, that golf course employees perform other functions in the community, including plowing in the winter.

Corbett said the payroll and benefits for the golf course employees, which come to about $163,000 a year, is not a completely accurate number because those employees don’t just work for the golf course.

“If we get rid of the employees at the golf course, most of them are going to remain with the DPW (Department of Public Works),” he said. “And then we’d be losing money. To me, it’s like vodoo economics the way they calculate our expenses.”

“The more I see of this, the more I view it as political,” Corbett added. “This is the one place where adults and seniors can go for recreation, and we have many kids who play. (The course is the home course of the Naugatuck High School golf team.)

“Believe me, I’d love to see a plan that can help generate even more revenue, but I haven’t seen it. People spout off without all of the facts, and they criticize without a solution.”

Mezzo said he, too, is waiting for a proposed solution. On Thursday, he asked if anyone among the Board of Mayor and Burgesses or Board of Finance was willing to propose eliminating golf course funding. Nobody raised a hand.

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