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Calgary golf courses could have operations privatized

After nearly a decade of operating in the rough, city councillors will be looking to split the fairway and finally eagle the monster par five of operating Calgary golf courses.

It’s a hole they’ve played many times before and the best score they’ve carded is a bogey.

In Tuesday’s extended version of this week’s combined meeting of council, councillors debated a matter of urgent business to develop a Request for Proposal (RFP) to secure a long-term golf course management contract for the operations and service of City of Calgary golf courses.

The motion passed 11-2, but not without some resistance.

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Coun. Ward Sutherland brought the motion forward in Monday’s meeting, hoping to bring costs in line with current market conditions – primarily wages, he said.

“The bottom line in the issue with golf courses is the wages,” Sutherland told LiveWire Calgary.

“The wages are not even close to market. And because they’re not even close to market, they’ve gone from a profitable position to a negative position and will get even worse, not better.”

Nibbling around the budget edges, said Coun. Woolley

Councillor Evan Woolley said they’ve got a big budget task ahead of them next week and that this is something that doesn’t make a large fiscal difference.

“You’re nibbling around the edges, around these tiny, tiny little smidgens of moves. I know it’s making everybody feel really, really good about themselves,” Woolley said.

He said that private operators have had a time tough making golf courses work in the city. City administration’s budget report said that given the need to make a profit on the operation, it could result in higher green fees prices.

Woolley said that could affect seniors, who are the largest demographic using Calgary golf courses.

“And so chalk this up as your little win, and we’ll see where everybody lands next week,” Woolley said.

Calgary golf course balance sheet’s seen better days

According to city documents, prior to 2012, the city’s golf course operations (GCO) contributed $3.6 million in revenue and self-funded $14 million in capital projects between 1995 and 2012. In 2012, council directed GCOs to be tax supported and now annually receive between $435,000 and $964,000.

One of the biggest hurdles in the process, Sutherland said, is the succession rules in their union contracts. Should the golf courses be contracted out, current personnel would be kept on board with their current wage.

“That’s some that we would like to dispute as a council,” he said.

“We don’t want to be handcuffed and I think it’s absolutely unfair that we would have to be forced to lose money.”

Calgary city council has been down this track before. In the city’s recent budget adjustments package, administration clearly outlines that city council has directed five reviews of golf course operations since 2014, “meaning less time has been devoted to accelerating cost savings or revenue generation initiatives.”

We went back nearly 10 years

Our review went back to 2010. It shows Calgary golf courses have been reviewed or presented in one capacity or another at council at least 12 times since 2010.

That includes everything from a 2010 GCO review that included consultants. There was a 2012 business review of GCO. In 2013, GCO guiding principles were established. McCall Lake feasibility was studied in 2014. A service model analysis was done in 2015. A similar motion to the one council will discuss Tuesday was put forward in 2016 – a request for an expression of interest in contracting out parts of the city’s golf course operations.

In 2017, Coun. Sutherland requested that a letter be sent to the province’s municipal affairs minister to review how city-owned golf courses are taxed.

Reviews in 2018 included one on golf course sustainability and real estate development potential. In 2019, reports 2019-070, 2019-0475 and the current request for RFP are proposed.

Some of these are incremental updates, all require administrative effort to produce.

Currently, the Golf Course Sustainability Workplan is being implemented by city administration. That’s expected to be complete in 2022 and bring golf course operations to a “net zero.” Current capital requirements (unfunded) are at $750,000 annually.

When asked about this and whether the efforts over the past decade have been redundant, Sutherland acknowledged it, and said that’s why it’s time to find a final solution.

“The difference now is council has taken a position. There’s 11 names on (the notice of motion). Either we’re going to make it sustainable and not lose money, or we’re going to deal with it in a different manner,” he said.

Calgary golf course sub-service budget review

In city administration’s budget recommendations, they estimate it will cost $150,000 to initiate a bid process to contract out operations for Calgary golf courses. They also said the successorship or common employer rules would likely be taken to the Alberta Labour Relations Board by the applicable city unions.  

They do present three options: continuing with the sustainability work plan, contracting out the service, or the elimination of the golf courses, with possible conversion to park space.

Between 2015 and 2017, an average of 235,019 rounds were played on city golf courses. One in five Calgarians use city-operated golf facilities.