Keeping The Bluffs green has Vermillion seeing red By David Lias Appearances can be deceiving.
Thanks to favorable weather conditions and the professionalism of its ground crew, the fairways and putting surfaces of Vermillion's municipal golf course, The Bluffs, remained lush and green from early spring to late fall in 2004.
Local golfers who frequent the course had no way of knowing that, at the same time, the golf course's budget was running into red ink.
Last month, at a Vermillion City Council meeting, it was revealed that The Bluffs' revenue problems had grown worse than expected.
It also appeared that a 10 percent hike in user fees was inevitable to get the course's budget up to par.
The Vermillion City Council � citing fears that a rate increase would only decrease the amount of play on the course and contribute to its monetary woes � isn't ready to tee-off on that idea.
The Bluffs' advisory board met Dec. 13, studied the shortfall in the revenue, and discussed options, said Don Scheidel, advisory board member.
"Our first discussions revolved around how do we increase revenues at the golf course," he said. "We talked about the number of rounds that have been played in past years, and we compared numbers with other courses."
The board concluded that one way to raise more money would be to increase the number of outings hosted by the course.
"For example, businesses that want to have a golf tournament for employees or customers," Scheidel said. "We wanted to try to identify one person employed out at the golf course to try to solicit more of these types of activities to try to increase cash flow."
The advisory board also grappled with a more difficult question: should fees be increased or services cut at The Bluffs?
"There was a consensus among our committee that cutting services would be a mistake, especially as far as the conditioning of the course and those types of issues," Scheidel said. "We felt that cutting those kinds of services would be a disincentive for people to come and play our course.
"Besides the fact that it is a wonderful layout," he said, "one of the reasons people like to come and play our course is that it is in excellent condition."
The decision to leave services untouched, when added to other uncertainties about future revenues, prompted the committee to conclude that a rate increase is in order, Scheidel said.
According to a memo written by Dave Nelson, the city's park and recreation director, it appeared that The Bluffs would have to raise fees "at budget time" to cover a net loss of $25,000.
Turn to Bluffs on Page 10
The city council works on its annual budget late in the summer, giving it final approval each fall.
At the end of November, however, the golf course was $35,000 in the red. Nelson attributes the instability in the budget to:
* Clubhouse expenses over budget including cleaning ($2,000), electricity ($3,000), insurance ($2,000) and wages ($5,000).
* Course operations over budget including fuel ($3,000), chemicals ($7,000), electricity ($6,000) and wages ($7,000).
Nelson and other staff members informed city officials of the course's money problems last July during budget workshops and, most recently, in November.
"I had a busy weekend with phone calls; I think as of tonight I had 11 calls on this topic, and six citizens put something in writing," Mayor Dan Christopherson said at Dec. 20's city council meeting.
He recommended that the idea of raising fees be tabled and studied by the city's labor and finance committee, working in concert with The Bluffs advisory committee.
The city council agreed. Aldermen will review the findings of the two committees at the Jan. 17 council meeting.
"I would like to see if we could come up with a specific work plan on how to increase the revenue side of this and possibly blend it with a modest fee increase," Christopherson said. "That was my conclusion after listening to the feedback from the people who called me."
Nelson noted that the golf course's budget is not funded by tax dollars. "This year at budget time, we raised some of the fees. Insurance, electrical and cleaning costs went up, and that was when we started to notice that we were going to have a (budget) shortfall."
He added that labor, equipment and materials to keep the links in prime condition must be expended regardless of the number of people who play at The Bluffs each year.
"Those costs are not dependent on the number of rounds that are played," Nelson said. "We had a lot of rounds played this year � equal to the best courses in the Midwest."
"I would assume we're fairly price-sensitive, and if we did not raise the fees high relative to surrounding golf courses, that may increase the number of people who play which probably would increase the bottom line," Alderman Tom Davies said.
The PGA, Nelson said, has advised golf courses to not raise rates because it has a negative impact on participation in the sport.
The Bluffs has, in fact, offered discounts in the past two years in an attempt to attract new members.
Lowering prices lured in 30 new memberships. The revenue generated by the additional players wasn't enough, however, to offset increasing costs.
The Bluffs has faced unexpected situations that stretched its budget thin.
The $7,000 shortfall in wages can be attributed, in part, to the mild winters Vermillion has experienced the past two years.
"We've been a 12-month operation during that time," Nelson said. "Last Wednesday (Dec. 15) I was at the course and it was open. Last Thursday night, even though men's league was done, they all came out to the course, and we had a staff member there until 12:30 a.m."
In the months of January, February, March, April and November, The Bluffs' labor expenditures for just the clubhouse services totaled $5,000, said Kirk Hogen, the course's golf professional.
"We've talked to about 15 different golf courses that are more similar to our position," Hogen said.
"This isn't just The Bluffs' scenario that we're going through. This is golf in general right now. We're all trying to maintain what we have, and still try to provide the services, but the expenses are going up."