As Chattanooga considers slight increases to course fees at its city-owned golf courses, City Council members are debating whether the city should even continue to operate them.
During a meeting Tuesday, council members sparred about the financial, historical, functional and cultural values of the city's two public golf courses after losing more than $600,000 on operating them.
"Golf courses and Public Works were kind enough to send me some financials for the last three years, and I'm not saying a city should not be operating a golf course but maybe this city should not," Councilman Jerry Mitchell said during Tuesday's public works and transportation committee meeting ahead of the vote. "I mean, we've lost over $600,000 last three years on golf courses."
Mitchell, who has brought the cost and management of golf courses before the council multiple times before, noted that Moccasin Bend, a course co-owned by the city and county but operated by a private company, doesn't lose money for the city.
"For the last, time I promise, I'll say that we shouldn't be operating public golf courses in the city and maybe we should turn them over to a private management company," he added. "But that's, that's something you've probably gotten used to hearing me say so that's all I'll say about that and move on."
While Mitchell kept his own comments brief, he prompted a discussion about the role of the golf courses in Chattanooga.
Councilman Russell Gilbert argued that the golf courses are not only historical, but offer an affordable recreational opportunity to citizens.
Proposed rate changes as of April 1
18-hole Green Fee — Weekdays $22 to $23
18-hole Green Fee — Weekends/Holidays $27 to $28
18-hole Senior (ages 60 & up) Green Fee — Weekdays $16 to $17
18-hole Junior (ages 17 & under) Green Fee — Weekdays $5, no change
Cart Rentals — 18 holes $14, no change
Cart Rentals — 9 holes $7, no change
9-hole Green Fee —Weekdays $11 to $11.50
9-hole Green Fee —Weekends/Holidays $13.50 to $14
9-hole Green Fee — Senior (60 & up) — Weekdays $11 to $11.50
9-hole Green Fee — Junior (17 & under) — Weekdays $5, no change
"The golf courses are historical, we might not be making money off of [them] but it's historical," Gilbert said. "Also, there's opportunity for people to have a lower rate to play. I don't know, if we go private, if that will still happen or not."
Councilwoman Carol Berz argued that the courses play pivotal cultural and practical roles for the city.
"Not everybody can be part of a private golf course, and this is the one thing that the city does that allows all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds to be together," she said, noting that parks and other recreational areas are financially similar. "Then we could look and see what about the bridges? What about our parks? What kind of money did they make? They're all cost centers."
She also noted that some courses even help the city's water collection efforts, serving a "dual purpose" beyond just entertainment.
Mitchell had support from Councilman Ken Smith, who said the argument isn't about whether the city should keep the courses, which no one was advocating against, but about outsourcing management to save money.
"There are definite reasons that the city has facilities such as these. And I don't know that anybody's up here saying 'hey, let's get rid of them, let's get rid of them,'" Smith said, noting that the council should consider changes "anywhere that we can better manage facilities we may have so that they can become profitable."
Smith also compared the facilities to the city's Youth and Family Development centers and other community services that cost money to provide for citizens but are financially monitored, as he believes the golf courses should be.
"I think it is our job to question whether or not those facilities are providing the services we think they are. Or if they're just losing money," Smith said. "And I think that's a fair question when it comes to the golf courses as well."
Mitchell also found some support from Councilman Darrin Ledford, who suggested the financial losses of the golf courses should have been targeted as potential savings opportunities during recent conversations about defunding the police and reinvesting in the community.
"I just find it puzzling that in our conversations that we've been having for the last couple months ... no one's picked up on that we're losing that much money that maybe [should] be reinvested somewhere else for other issues, but I digress," Ledford said.
There is currently no proposed legislation to outsource golf course management.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.