An extra $230,000 approved as subsidy for Bobby Jones Golf Club, bringing total to $880,000 for last fiscal year

Brody and Freeland Eddie oppose the staff proposal

Part of Bobby Jones Golf Club is located near the intersection of Beneva Road and Fruitville Road in Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

This week, both Sarasota Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody voted “No” on a motion to approve an extra $230,000 subsidy to the Bobby Jones Golf Club.

The total amount of additional funding to balance the golf club’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year — which ended Sept. 30 — was $880,000, city Finance Director Kelly Strickland reported in response to Brody’s questioning.

For the 2018 fiscal year, the subsidy was $800,000, Strickland said.

During the late summer, the commissioners approved a plan to maintain Bobby Jones with 27 regulation holes and a 9-hole adjustable course for public use. The current configuration of the complex allows players options for 45 holes of play.

Both Freeland Eddie and Brody voted “No” on Sept. 9, as well, when their colleagues decided to go forward with a proposal that calls for city staff to work with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to create 47 acres of park space on the Bobby Jones property.

A graphic provided to the city commissioners for their special meeting on Sept. 9 shows the location of the golf complex and surrounding parkland. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The staff request for an extra $230,000 to subsidize the golf complex was on the City Commission’s Nov. 18 Consent Agenda No. 1 of routine business items, but Brody asked that it be pulled for discussion.

When Brody asked Strickland how much the total subsidy would be for the 2019 fiscal year, she told him that staff had budgeted $650,000; thus, the extra $230,000 would make the total $880,000.

Why was the original estimate approximately 30% “off from our projections?” he asked.

“Our revenues did not come in as expected,” she explained, noting also that Bobby Jones Golf Club began the 2019 fiscal year with a $127,000 deficit.

When Brody then asked how much of a subsidy staff plans on for the current fiscal year, Strickland replied that the amount is $88,500, based on six months of operations.

(As discussed at the Sept. 9 City Commission meeting, the complex would close for renovations after the 2019-20 tourist season and then reopen in October 2021.)

Next, Brody asked whether the extra $230,000 would be taken out of the city’s reserves.

“Yes,” Strickland told him; “fund balance.”

If the golf complex has to have more of a subsidy than planned after the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, 2020, where will the funds come from, Brody asked.

Strickland reminded him that the commission had established a Parks and Recreation District and transferred $2.4 million out of the city’s General Fund to support that district’s operations in its first year, FY2020. (The commissioners declined to set a special property tax rate for the district before approving their budget for the current fiscal year. The General Fund largely is made up of property tax revenue.)

When Brody asked how much staff budgeted for operational expenses for Bobby Jones in the 2019 fiscal year, Strickland told him the amount was $2.9 million.

This information about potential income and losses for Bobby Jones Golf Club, after renovations, also was provided to the board in advance of the Sept. 9 meeting. It was prepared by Bass Fletcher & Associates. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Brody asked Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown when the City Commission last “substantially increased its fund balance,” which is a reserve for unexpected expenses.

“About two years ago,” Brown told him. (City Manager Tom Barwin was absent from the meeting during the discussion.)

Property values went up two years ago, Brown added, which provided extra revenue for the fund balance.

“This year,” Strickland noted, “we had a very good year with property values going up [again].” (They increased about 7% from 2018.)

“When was the last time we ran a surplus and we were able to significantly increase our fund balance?” Brody asked her.

For 2020, Assistant City Manager John Lege pointed out, “We presented a balanced budget.” He added that any year when revenue exceeds expenses for the city, the extra money goes into the fund balance.

“Every year, typically, our expenditures come in about 2.5% lower [than expected],” Strickland added.

More questions

During a statutory meeting conducted on Nov. 8, the city commissioners elected Jen Ahearn-Koch mayor (left) and Shelli Freeland Eddie vice mayor. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie then pointed out that she had emailed a request to staff prior to the meeting, seeking a breakdown of the extra $230,000. In reply, Freeland Eddie continued, Sue Martin, manager of Bobby Jones Golf Club, wrote her that $158,750 covered a surface drainage project on the American Course; personnel expenses higher than expected for the fiscal year added up to $147,210 — for raises and insurance; and two business plans prepared by the National Golf Foundation totaled $28,000.

“How could we not have anticipated some of these costs?” Freeland Eddie asked Strickland and Martin.

The drainage work and business plans were approved by the City Commission after the 2019 fiscal year began, Martin said. Each business plan — as the commission was debating how best to proceed with renovations at the golf club — cost $14,000, Martin added.

However, a 3% pay increase for the employees was factored into the budget, Strickland noted.

Finally, when Ahearn-Koch asked for a motion, Commissioner Liz Alpert called for approval of the subsidy, and Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.

Commissioner Hagen Brody. News Leader image

“Without beating a dead horse,” Brody said, “I would really ask this commission to reflect on the amount of deficit spending that we’re incurring on projects like this.”

Freeland Eddie added that, instead of holding the vote that day, she would like to have staff work on measures to end deficit spending on Bobby Jones Golf Club.

After the 3-2 vote, Freeland Eddie made a new motion, directing staff members to prepare an update regarding how they can work over the next 12 months “to begin to reduce the subsidy.”

With no one seconding the motion, Ahearn-Koch reported that it had died for lack of a second.

“Can I just speak to it?” Brody asked.

“It’s dead,” Ahearn-Koch told him. When Brody started to say something else, she added. “It’s over. We’re moving on.”