Since 2002, the city has subsidized $800,000 in golf course losses.
The money has been taken out of the city's reserve funds, a taxpayer-supported account that is supposed to be used for emergencies.
This year, though, that account is bone dry, and Hyde Park Golf Course operating costs are still in the red. City officials expect to lose $300,000.
Mayor Vince V. Anello doesn't know where the money will come from and fears city departments will take a hit. He has encouraged the City Council to make the golf course more self-supporting by raising user fees, but his words have left Council members unmoved.
The same time the Council couldn't find enough money to fully fund city libraries for a whole year, four of its five members voted down a rate hike for this golf season.
They said golf is an important quality-of-life service, and one of them, Robert Anderson Jr., pointed out that this is an election year.
Each year, between 50,000 and 60,000 rounds of golf are played, and last year more than 500 residents bought season passes, said golf course director Sam Granieri.
The mayor's proposed golfing fee hikes would have brought in about $100,000 in additional revenue, but the request came far after budget season and the condition of the course doesn't warrant an increase, Council members said when they rejected Anello's proposal in February.
Anderson also said he believes the golf course has been mismanaged and the city needs to prove it can run it more cost-effectively.
In Erie County, the budget crisis closed parks and its two municipal golf courses. Recently, lawmakers decided to raise golf cart rental fees from $20 to $22, achieved union concessions and cut the golf budget for supplies, so Grover Cleveland and Elma Meadows courses could be re-opened as self-supporting courses.
The cost of golf passes in Niagara Falls appears comparable with other nearby municipal golf courses.
While a Niagara Falls city resident pays $375 for a season pass, the Town of Tonawanda charges $370 for its resident pass to its two 18-hole courses, and the Niagara County Golf Course in Lockport charges $350.
In Niagara Falls, senior citizen residents pay $250, compared with $265 at the other two courses.
Council Chairman Charles Walker, the only member who supported raising fees this year, and Council Members Candra Thomason and Lewis "Babe" Rotella promised that any golf losses would not come out of the city's general operating budget or other departments.
"I wouldn't cut somewhere else to fund the golf course," Thomason said.
The scenario could mean cutting back help at the golf course, which has 13 workers, Rotella said.
"And if we lose a couple dollars, what's the difference?" Rotella said. "Hopefully we can talk to the casino and Power Authority to help us out."
Seneca Niagara Casino provides the city a local share of casino revenue, but how much, and what for, remains the subject of debate this year. The Power Authority is working on a relicensing agreement for its Niagara Power Project that will mean millions of dollars for Niagara Falls and nearby municipalities and school districts, but the license doesn't expire until 2007.
Mayor sees subsidy
Meanwhile, the mayor is unhappy. He maintains all city taxpayers are subsidizing a service that only a portion of residents use.
Anello presented, and the Council passed, a 2005 golf budget that estimates season pass sales at $907,801 this year.
The closest the golf course has ever come to that was in 1999, when it brought in $869,384 in total revenue.
For the last two years, season pass and golf sales have dwindled to less than $700,000.
"I'm not saying that we have to make money, but taxpayers who don't use certain services shouldn't be expected to pay for it," Anello said.
When asked why he presented a golf budget that was $300,000 higher than expected revenues, Anello said the administration and Council both knew that work needed to be done this year to attract new revenue and more golfers.
"The expenses couldn't be shaved because the level of manpower we have at the golf course, you can't make it any lower," Anello said.
"The 2005 golf budget was approved under the assumption that it was a balanced budget," Walker said. "The rate hikes probably would not have been a problem if they came at budget time."
Anello said he wants Council members to identify the $300,000 in expenses they want to cut from the golf budget before that money is spent at the course.
"They had the same opportunity with the (golf) budget last year, and they didn't find it," he said. "They had the same opportunity with the library, and they didn't find the million dollars for the library."
Monthly account urged
City Controller Maria Brown said Granieri should keep a monthly account of what the golf course makes this year so that if he sees it will be a loss again, he can cut from the budget before the season is over.
Granieri "would have to look very hard at his expense lines and cut from maybe temporary or full-time lines, but that's up to Sam to determine how he could balance his budget," Brown said. "He should not wait until the golf course closes and say, 'Oh my, I ended up with a revenue loss.' "
Granieri said last week he isn't sure where he would cut.
Last fall, the Council approved turning the golf budget into an enterprise fund, or separately reported account, so they could closely monitor gains and loses.
Besides estimated sales, this year's golf budget of $986,661 includes a $50,000 rent payment for the White Nine from developer Greater Niagara Sports Group and $28,860 in rent for the Greens Restaurant.
But the city hasn't found an operator willing to pay that amount to run the restaurant and recently voted down an agreement that would have leased it for $6,000 a year to principals of Greater Niagara Sports Group.
Controller has doubts
"Is it a realistic budget based on historical data?" asked Brown. "I don't think it is."
There are skeptics of the city's estimated golf course losses who point out the numbers include the 13 golf employees' full-time salaries, even though nine of them don't work at the course during four winter months.
Brown said even if all the workers were counted as part-time there would still be a loss recorded because the estimates don't include indirect costs, such as the time many city departments -- such as Trades, Public Works and Human Relations -- spend on the course, as well as various items the city pays for, like snow removal and garbage pickup that are necessary to running the service.