Revenue from Madison’s four public golf courses fell almost $466,000 short of budget expectations in 2013, according to an internal city report that counters an earlier Parks Division claim that the courses made money in the first season without golf professionals managing them.
Overall, city courses lost $105,000 in 2013. A $466,000 revenue shortfall was fueled by greens fees and concessions sales that each were about $200,000 under budget, according to the report from the city’s finance office. An unexpected $100,000 from American Transmission Co. for an easement for high-voltage lines that run through Odana Hills kept it from being worse.
Last fall, Parks officials claimed that the courses “had a great year” in 2013 and that revenues were exceeding expenses by $287,000 as of Oct. 31. They said the number of 18-hole equivalent rounds of golf were bettering 2012’s numbers even though the courses had 40 fewer days of operation in 2013.
Acting Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp, who is also the department’s financial officer, did not dispute the numbers in the internal report. “Last year was not a good year,” Knepp said. “It was not financially a good year for golf.”
The Parks report was approved by former Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski, who left his position last month for a similar post in Melbourne, Florida. Briski was advised to write a more careful report or wait a few weeks for the end of the season when a complete look at the numbers could be evaluated, said Knepp, who was the Parks’ assistant superintendent at the time.
“My advice was that there were a lot of things in play and we should be cautious due to the sensitivity of the situation,” Knepp added. “But Kevin was the boss.”
Briski did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Management of the courses became controversial after the City Council voted in 2012 to replace the four PGA of America golf pros who ran the courses with one golf pro, some assistant golf pros and unionized concession workers. Briski supported, and pushed for, the change, which was endorsed by Mayor Paul Soglin.
The pros — Tom Benson, Rob Muranyi, Mark Rechlicz and Bill Scheer — have filed a lawsuit alleging that the city violated state laws in 2012 by not renewing their contracts. In a deposition last month, Briski told the pros’ attorney, Kevin Palmersheim, that the city’s net golf income for 2013 finished “on the plus side.”
Palmersheim said evidence runs counter to Briski’s sworn statement and is part of a pattern of deceit from Briski going back to August 2012, when he told the pros that their jobs were in jeopardy.
Briski also said in the deposition that he sent the pros an email in 2012 that said increased revenues were needed to complete an overhaul of the golf course operations that already included employee layoffs and maintenance cuts made by the city to balance the budget on the expenditure side of the ledger.
But the internal city report showed that golf course expenditures by the city went over budget from 2008 through 2012 — all under Briski’s watch as parks superintendent — while revenues generated mostly by the pros fell short of budget expectations just three times. The report also showed that golf course operations lost $948,135 from 2008 through 2012, and expenses over budget accounted for $831,749 of it. The courses are budgeted to break even every year.
Joe Stadler, the executive director of the Wisconsin PGA, said he was suspicious of the earlier Parks report because golf courses statewide showed a 14 percent decline in rounds played in 2013. Poor weather was mostly to blame, he added.
A review of the city’s golf finances since Briski became superintendent in 2008 showed that 2013 produced the lowest revenue for greens fees, league fees and concessions. Knepp said much of that was due to the poor weather.
He added that the new management program helped the revenue side of the ledger because the city received all of the concession ($336,000) and motorized golf cart rental revenue ($434,000) for the first time. Previously, the city received just a small percentage of those revenues from the golf pros.
But the new management program still needs tweaking, Knepp said.
Concession sales were down 23.4 percent in 2013 compared to 2012 even though the courses’ hot dogs and brats were donated by Metcalfe’s and prices were lowered for beer, soft drinks and some food.
The absence of liquor at the courses last year was “a huge part of it,” Knepp said. That was a by-product of the management change because the golf pros held the courses’ liquor licenses, and the city chose to limit alcohol sales to beer.
Knepp also said more outings are needed as a way of increasing play at the 36-hole Yahara Hills Golf Course. “We need to get more use out there. Plain and simple,” he added. “We can’t have as many open spots as we do now at Yahara.”
Greens fees may be lowered at the four courses “where we can and where’s it’s appropriate, in a balanced way,” Knepp said.
Parks also is dealing with recent departures of key personnel such as Ian Nicoll, the pro who was hired to oversee the city’s entire golf operations. Nicoll left to become general manager of the Turnberry Country Club in Crystal Lake, Illinois. He was replaced by Ryan Brinza, who became a PGA pro this month.
“Our biggest focus is on the day-to-day operation, so that people who come out to the courses don’t feel that tumultuous time,” Knepp said.
Knepp also plans to take a more active role working with the city’s golf subcommittee and making sure members are kept up to date with the courses’ financial situation. “It starts with them,” he said.
Subcommittee member Dan Smith said the committee was skeptical of the report last fall, believing Briski signed off on a false report to convince everyone that the management change he wanted was working.
“I didn’t trust the guy. The way he went about (firing the golf pros) was wrong on all kinds of levels,” Smith said.
Smith added that he was hopeful that a more promising period for Madison’s golf courses was ahead: “You just hope that if things continue like this (city officials) won’t say, ‘We just give up on golf,’ or go to a management company, which would be just horrible.”