Former Augusta Recreation Director Tom Beck says Augusta commissioners got what they asked for when the city’s municipal golf course, aka the Patch, was padlocked last week.
For the 15 years that the recreation department ran the Patch under Beck’s direction, it was maintained, repairs were made and there were no complaints from the public.
“The issue was primarily a paper deficit,” said Beck, who commissioners fired this year on trumped-up allegations of time-card fraud. “There are multimillion-dollar operations running deficits all over the city. Just look at the civic center, whose budget is balanced every year with alcohol taxes. But they decided the golf course was the one to go after.
“So this guy Brian Hendry comes in, and they knew or should have known he had absolutely zero experience running a golf course. He was planning to tread water for 50 weeks of the year. Make his money Masters week. He made no bones about it. But I heard they absolutely bombed. They had very little activity. As a businessman, he wasn’t going to lose any more money, so he stopped making lease payments.”
Last year, after commissioners made an issue of the deficit, they formed a sub-committee to study what to do. The chairman was Commissioner Bill Lockett who held several public meetings and eventually recommended keeping the course in recreation and putting it into the general fund. Another sub-committee of Augusta State University officials and Patch players, with businessman James Kendrick as chairman, recommended leasing the course to Affiniti Golf Partners, which manages the nearby Forest Hills Golf Course.
So Beck offered commissioners three options:
• Keep the course as part of the recreation department.
• Pay Affiniti Golf $5,000 a month to manage it.
• Lease the course to Hendry and his silent partner from Savannah, Michael Kistler, for $1,000 a month.
“They ended up taking the easy way out and the Patch LLC took over in January,” Beck said. “I saw Kistler one time during the selection interview. I worked with them four months in the transition and never saw him again.”
FORE! The recreation department operated the course as an enterprise fund, which means it was run like a business, able to produce revenue and show profit and loss. In the best of circumstances, golf courses don’t make a big profit. And the majority of the deficit was cost allocation and depreciation, Beck said.
Every year, the course paid the city $70,000 in cost allocation for employee salaries and other expenses which counted as part of the deficit.
“When they would spit out the deficit number, it included cost allocation and depreciation,” he said. “One of the early recommendations was to put it in the city’s general fund, and that would have solved the problem. Those expenses would have gone away, and the deficit would have been down to less than $100,000 a year.”
In comparison, the Aquatics Center cost taxpayers more than $300,000 a year to operate and May Park Community Center cost almost $200,000 a year.
“Overall, we spent $8 million and took in $1 million,” Beck said. “So why was the golf course so different? Public golf courses struggle all over the country to make money, and the commission knew that. It was a wonderful outlet to a lot of great people who have been let down by their city leaders. A real shame.
“Now look at what’s happened. They got what they wanted. And the three amigos who led the fight for Hendry’s lease were Wayne Guilfoyle, Joe Bowles and Joe Jackson, along with Administrator Fred Russell. They were the key players to thank for pushing the lease with Hendry, over either Affiniti Golf, a proven professional management firm, or keeping it in house in the general fund. It looked to me like a double bogey plan from the start turned out to be a triple.”
OHHH, IT’S FEDERAL FUNDS. WELL, LET’S JUST SPEND IT: Commissioners took the first step toward becoming landlords last week when they approved the housing department’s plan to build apartments on Barton Chapel Road.
Assistant Housing Director Hawthorne Wilcher Jr. told them the department has 100 percent of the money to build nine attached two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments. With federal cutbacks each year, the department wants to become self-sufficient, he said.
Bowles said he couldn’t make a decision based on the single sheet of information before him.
“It tells me how much money we’re getting, and we’re not on the hook for it, but I remember about three months ago sending $700,000 back to Washington. So we are on the hook for what you do.”
Jackson made a case for the department doing more to clean up blight in the Dover-Lyman neighborhood first.
“It’s just really disheartening that we’ve got a burnt-out house next to one you guys are trying to sell for a buck and a half. And who the hell wants to buy next to it? Who wants to wake up every morning and look at that? You’ve got a prominent restaurant ready to pull the plug on Richmond County right now because of the area.”
Commissioner J.R. Hatney asked about liability and who would get the rental income. Wilcher said the land bank would get it. Under further questioning, it became apparent he didn’t know who would get the money.
“I disagree with Augusta-Richmond County being in the hotel rental business, landlord business,” Jackson said. “Who’s collecting the money? Who’s getting the money? And as Commissioner Brigham said, how does it affect our tax digest? And if, as Commissioner Bowles said, it’s a shell game, and they’re not sure who in the hell is going to get the money or where the money is going or who’s paying the property taxes, I’ve got some issues.”
Bowles also expressed concern about liability. “We can put it into the land bank or whatever you want to, but the federal government is going to come back to us.”
Brigham commended Wilcher for thinking outside the box, but added, “I think you’re trying to get us into a box we don’t need to be in – and that’s to be landlords.”
Then Lockett lectured them about their “double standard.”
“We’re not talking about any dollars coming out of our general fund,” he said. “We’re talking about federal dollars. When we were talking about the TEE Center there was no concern about spending millions of dollars. Now we’re trying to help poor and middle-class people who do pay taxes. I think everybody is entitled to a very nice place to live whether they rent or whether they own.”
Shortly thereafter, the vote was called. Bowles inexplicably voted yes. And the motion passed 6-3.
WHO HAS ANY MONEY LEFT? Friends of Freddie Sanders, Republican candidate for Richmond County sheriff, are holding a fundraising fish fry for him at T’s Restaurant at 6 p.m. Monday. Other events for Sanders will be at Julian Smith Casino on Thursday, and at Jesse Carroll Center on Sept. 18.
Lewis Blanchard, the campaign chairman for former Democratic sheriff’s candidate Scott Peebles, who lost to Richard Roundtree in a runoff, is holding a meet and greet for Roundtree at his clubhouse on Azalea Drive at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. After Peebles lost the runoff, he endorsed Roundtree and just days later people who had donated to Peebles received invitations to the Roundtree event.
EXPECT TO BE ENTERTAINED: The Shield Club is holding a retirement party for Sheriff Ronnie Strength at Sconyers Bar-B-Que restaurant Wednesday at 6 p.m. About 300 people have been invited. Sanders is among the speakers expected to praise and roast the sheriff.