Winter weather has kept them off the greens, but a group of enraged golfers hasn't stopped swinging at what it says is mismanagement and misuse of Salt Lake City's golf enterprise fund.
Calling themselves the Citizens Golf Committee, the group's leaders say they represent more than 3,000 other golfers who are "fed up" with policies that have dramatically increased the city's green fees during the past six years."City officials have lied to the public and to the City Council in order to justify those increases, and we're convinced that either gross incompetence or corruption is behind it," said Lou Skokos, who along with others has been trying to call attention to the issue for more than two years.
They contend that fees have risen because of an overpriced and mismanaged golf course development program. They are also charging that golf funds have been misspent and that decisions have been based on bad advice and poor judgment.
Dissatisfied with the response they've been getting from Mayor Palmer DePaulis and his staff, the group is now seeking a grand jury investigation of several specific allegations, which include:
- The new $6.4 million Wingpointe Golf Course near the airport cost far too much to build, has exceeded its budget, will cost too much to maintain and will benefit only a few golfers, particularly airport hotel guests.
- The $3.9 million expansion of Mountain Dell was overpriced as well and also exceeded its budget.
- By bonding for the course development rather than financing it in stages through the golf fund, the projects cost golfers an extra $6 million in interest.
- A number of golf course development firms were excluded from the bidding process.
- Officials improperly financed a cross country ski trail at Mountain Dell and have recovered none of the money.
- Five holes of the Mountain Dell expansion were put on land the city doesn't own.
- Officials have never explained the sale of a one-third-acre notch of land from Bonneville's 14th fairway to a developer in 1988.
- DePaulis is trying to avoid public dialogue on the issue and refuses to discuss the subject with the golf group's representatives.
City denies ducking issue
Mayoral aide Michael Zuhl, who responded to the allegations on the mayor's behalf, denied that DePaulis is ducking the issue.
"He has met with these people before, and all of the decisions have been made in public meetings, following public hearings," Zuhl said. "People have been involved and have expressed themselves."
And City Finance Director Linda Hamilton this week responded to the group's specific charges with a detailed, seven-page report to Zuhl and the City Council. "I hope this is a definitive response," she said, "because I am concerned about the incredible cost of staff time that has gone into responding to this group of golfers over and over again on many of the same issues for the last two years."
`Overrun only significant issue'
The cost overrun at the courses - $430,000 - is the only significant question posed by the golfers, according to the report. (The golfers say the overrun is closer to $938,000.) "All other issues being raised are either very minor in nature . . . erroneous . . . or consistent with city policy."
For example, Zuhl and Hamilton said that while it is true that the city would have had enough cash to expand Mountain Dell, the decision to finance both courses with bonds was based on legitimate policy considerations.
"Financing the courses with surplus funds would have delayed construction for several years. We wanted to make the commitment and build them now and retire the debt over a period of years," Zuhl said.
Skokos argues that the interest expense was unnecessary. "And even if they wanted the two courses right away, they could have financed one with cash and bonded for only one."
However, Skokos added, the more conservative approach might have been impossible given what he calls the "exorbitant" cost of the Wingpointe and Mountain Dell projects. One reason for the high price was the lack of competitive bidding, according to the citizens committee.
Golf course designers complain
The group has been informed by two golf course designers that they and others were intentionally excluded from the competition. One local designer complained that the city "furtively" solicited proposals from a select group of out-of-state firms and ignored local interest in the work.
The other, First Golf Corp., Denver, said it was told that it would be given the opportunity to compete for the job, but then was left out of the selection process without explanation.
City officials said First Golf was invited to submit a proposal, but did not reply. Responding to the broader allegation, they said a policy decision was made to send "requests for qualifications" only to the 90 certified members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Thirteen submitted proposals, and a city committee selected Arthur Hills for the Wingpointe project and Neff Alliance for Mountain Dell.
The high cost of the projects prompted city officials to raise green fees across the board, which provoked an outcry from the golfers. They said other public courses in Utah have been built for millions of dollars less: $4.3 million for Green Spring, Washington City; $3.5 million for Murray Parkway; $3.4 million for Sunbrook, St. George; and $3.1 million for West Ridge, West Valley City.
Salt Lake officials dispute those figures - which were supplied by officials from those cities - and said such comparisons are meaningless anyway because the costs reflect a wide range of variables.
"Unless the Deseret News is willing to hire an accounting firm to ensure that they are comparing apples to apples, they would do well to avoid straight across comparisons among golf courses included in our sample," Hamilton said in a memo to Zuhl.
Wingpointe course `poorly planned'
Joan M. Lally, an adjunct professor of management at the University of Utah and a member of the Citizens Golf Committee, said Wingpointe is a product of poor planning, as well as a financial disaster.
"There are so many reasons why it shouldn't have been built there," she said. "The soil is so bad, so alkaline, that the maintenance will be a nightmare. Several greens turned purple last year because of some kind of fungus. The mosquitoes out there are terrible, the noise from airplanes and the freeways is distracting; it is just the worst possible location."
Another member, Norman Dean, who served four years on a city budget committee, said he doesn't believe that Wingpointe was ever intended to serve local golfers. "It was put there to beautify the west entrance to Salt Lake City and for the convenience of airport hotel guests."
City says course good for economy
Zuhl concedes that Wingpointe will benefit nearby hotels and the airport - "which is why the Airport Authority was a major investor in the course" - but he insists that it will also attract many local golfers. "Our projections indicate that it will receive extensive play."
Salt Lake officials are estimating that Wingpointe will cost $424,000 per year to maintain, compared with $500,000 at West Ridge and $425,000 at Murray Parkway. "This data suggests that maintenance at Wingpointe is certainly within normal parameters."
Ski trail at Mountain Dell
Besides the overall cost of the Mountain Dell expansion, the golf group is incensed at the expenditure of $69,000 in golf funds for a cross country ski trail. City officials say the actual cost was ultimately reduced to $22,000.
In a memo to former council member Willie Stoler, DePaulis said the golf fund would be subsidizing the ski trail in the amount of $1,454 per year for 10 years. He added, "I have taken the position that this very small subsidy of the ski trail by the golf fund warrants no further concern or action on our part."
However, an earlier city finance department analysis of the ski trail contract revealed problems with the way it was handled, including lack of advance planning and the absence of reliable cost and revenue projections.
"The flaw appears to be that hard costs were never thought out and planned," an inter-departmental memo said. "Because the design and costs were not thoroughly reviewed at the onset of course deliberations, it appears that the directive to build a ski trail was a last minute decision to be funded out of golf course funds. This perception is obviously not good for public relations."
Company dissolved by state
Skokos also finds it ironic that Summit Cross Country Ski Corp., which was awarded the "supposedly financially sound" Mountain Dell venture, was involuntarily dissolved by the Utah Department of Commerce earlier this year. "So our money is lost," he said.
Officials concede that the city attorney has determined that legal action against Summit would be "fruitless" because the company has no assets. The city is not prepared to run the trail itself because of prohibitive start-up costs. Instead, it will seek proposals from concessionaires next year, the report said.
Private land at Mountain Dell
The citizens committee also thinks it was improper for the city to develop five holes of the Mountain Dell course on privately owned land.
Zuhl said the land was not purchased in advance of development because of a dispute over the value. "We reached an agreement with the owner conceptually to sell, and the only matter left unresolved was the price. There was never a doubt that we would acquire the land."
Skokos said he doesn't doubt it either. "The question is, how much more will it end up costing us?"
According to the report, the property owner has rejected an offer of $31,174, which leaves the matter up to the courts.
Sale of Bonneville land
Although the sale of a piece of Bonneville Golf Course to developer Howard Lund in 1988 is unrelated to the controversial golf expansion program, the citizens committee cites it as one more example of mismanagement and poor communication.
The sale of the one-third acre parcel for $33,000 came as a surprise to the City Council and to residents in the area who feared it would enable Lund to subdivide adjacent land. In addition, the land was sold in spite of an earlier council directive prohibiting the disposal of any golf course land until a comprehensive open spaces master plan was complete.
The citizens committee said city officials have never given a full accounting of the transaction to golfers or the City Council.
"The property was not put out to competitive bid because it is the city's policy to sell property to the abutting property owner at fair market value," the city report answered, adding that the money was deposited in the golf enterprise fund.
The piece of golf course land plus the adjacent parcel have since been sold for about $500,000, according to the golf group.
Salt Lake green fees
1984 1986 1989
9 holes $4 $5 $6
18 holes $8 $10 $12
Season pass $200 $300 $500
Senior pass $112.50 $175 $400*
*Not valid at Wingpointe or Mt. Dell