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In case anyone still hoped budget cuts were free, they should have been disabused of that notion after reading the story that appeared in this newspaper the other day about Erie County parks and golf courses. Unless two closed golf courses get routine annual maintenance, the 36 greens will be damaged to the tune of at least $1.2 million. When it comes to meeting responsibilities already undertaken, the lesson here seems to be that you pay now or you pay later.

Which is why the County Legislature, which has made such a mess of the county budget, redeemed itself in a small, but important, way when it approved an increase in rental fees for golf carts from $20 to $22. The extra revenue, along with union concessions and a smaller budget for supplies, should let Grover Cleveland and Elma Meadows open as self-supporting courses, legislators said. In addition, workers also will care for the small park next to the Elma Meadows course.

It's a stretch to equate golf courses with other civic needs such as police services, safety-net programs, the arts, money for charitable agencies and other worthy causes. But that is an imperfect analogy, and the lawmakers were wise not to listen to those who tried to make it.

The county cannot simply let these facilities wither away. It will gain angry taxpayers nothing to save a few cents today if it costs them many dollars later. At some point, the courses would deteriorate and require millions of dollars to repair whenever the county did re-enter the golf business. User fees were an obvious solution, particularly for the golf course, but perhaps also for parks. What's more, the increase in user fees makes the proposal "budget neutral," said Legislator Timothy Wroblewski, who helped craft the $1.2 million plan and also helped win concessions from the union to make it possible.

Much of the public was understandably adamant about not raising taxes, but layoffs and budget cuts don't automatically eliminate related expenses. The public, in whose name these facilities were established, should continue to support them, and it seems fair under the circumstances to ask users to pony up.

Allowing the golf courses and parks to deteriorate was not an option. County leaders were right to act promptly to protect these resources as best as possible, understanding that today's crisis eventually will be a bad memory, and that those facilities remain valuable to the people of Erie County.