Sunday, May 13, 2007

Is Mayor’s List Of Possible Developers For City Golf Properties An Exclusive Club Of One?

Kathy Taylor’s announcement that she wants the City Council to agree to close several city owned golf holes in order balance her 2008 fiscal budget, has caused quite a debate in Tulsa. What appears on the surface to be an attempt to either fund the reopening of some of Tulsa’s long closed public swimming pools (the Mayor’s official spin) or to offset expected losses from the soon to be opened BOk Center, is stirring a lot of discussion about what would be the best establishment of city priorities.

However, sources tell me the real controversy may not come from the closing of the golf holes, but from what happens to the holes once closed.

Sources are saying that Mayor Taylor has already cut a deal with a local developer to sell both of Page Belcher “Back-Nines,” so that the developer can build homes on the properties. The deal calls for the city to be paid upwards of $5 million dollars for the 18 holes lying south of the clubhouse. If true, Mayor Kathy Taylor has struck a deal with a local developer without offering other developers a chance to bid on the properties.

Reports are that a deal may have been in the works for the sale of the golf course properties for a couple of years, which would have put the origins of the plan back into Bill LaFortune’s tenure as mayor. It was reported to me that the developer approached Mayor Taylor’s office about the possibility of purchasing the land late last year. My sources tell me that the developer (I’ve been given two possible names) has already met with the city’s economic development director, Don Himmelfarb, and a deal in principal was struck long before Mayor Taylor’s announcement to the City Council of her intentions to close the courses.

Current golf pro, George Glenn reportedly has a little more than a year left on his contract with the city, but it is speculated that Glenn would be amenable to a buy out.

It is further speculated that the Mayor’s office hopes to enlist Sen. Jim Inhofe to help with the complications arising from restrictions placed on the sale of the properties, due to the fact that some of the original funding for purchase of the properties on which the golf courses lie was supplied by the federal Department of the Interior.

The Mayor’s office hopes that by closing the 18 holes at Page Belcher, coupled with the proposed closure of nine additional holes at Mohawk in North Tulsa, that the savings to the city’s operating fund would make city-subsidized golf a breakeven endeavor. The city’s general fund, the same fund that pays for police and fire, as well as other basic city services, has been forced to increase the amount of its subsidy for the courses, as the demand for golf has declined and the availability of alternate public courses has increased. Proponents of the closure of some holes point out this availability of alternatives is what makes golf a better target for divestiture than say, the city’s zoo.

Even though the plan to close golf holes seems, on the surface, to be a winner for the taxpayer, Mayor Taylor is actually trading “sunk” tax dollars paid in the past, for the promise of future tax dollars. In order to finance the budget shortfall created by the development of the downtown arena (BOk Center), Mayor Taylor seems content to waste most of the $4.1 million of tax payer money that was spent on improving the city’s Page Belcher courses in West Tulsa, that was approved during the 2001 Third Penny Sales Tax vote.

I have been long saying that Tulsa is “capital dollar rich and operating dollar poor.” Golf courses, unlike other municipal assets, can’t be “warehoused.” Failure to maintain the courses for even one season will render them unusable.

The land on which the Mohawk public golf holes lie is unusable for development, because it lies in a flood plain. As such, there is virtually no demand from the private sector for the city to sell the property to developers.

Some of the additional reasons it is more profitable for the city to divest itself of Page Belcher holes, rather than Mohawk, are the greater cost of supplying water to Page Belcher and the fact that the West Tulsa courses lie within the boundaries of the Jenks school district. The proposed properties are also less than a mile from the construction of the new Tulsa Hills shopping center.

Regardless of your position on whether or not the golf courses should be shut down to save money, it is quite troubling to hear that Mayor Kathy Taylor may be planning to offer the highly valuable land to only one, highly connected, developer.

If sold, the city should ask for Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from the entire development sector. How else will we ever know if the citizens are getting the best deal possible on their tax dollar investment? How else will we know that special favors haven’t been granted for future favors?

Clean government demands an open process.