WAILUA — Keeping tee-time rates low at the Wailua Golf Course comes at a price.
This fiscal year, that may be about $250,000 that the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation is estimating the Golf Fund will fall short.
Parks and Recreation proposed financing the shortfall by reallocating $125,000 of its own department’s funds and by requesting an additional $125,000 from the General Fund, which was introduced as proposed Bill No. 2817 currently in front of the Kaua‘i County Council introduced by request by Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro at a meeting on Jan. 27.
The department placed the blame on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Department of Parks &Recreation estimates that the Golf Fund will fall short on its projected revenues for FY 2021 due to the golf course closures and play restrictions that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Parks and Recreation Director Patrick Porter said in a Jan. 11 memo to the council. “Since green fees for visitors are significantly higher than local residents, overall green fee income has been disproportionately impacted during the current fiscal year.”
For the period between July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, the county budgeted $2,811,724 for the Wailua Golf Course. This fiscal year, shortfalls include special projects and consulting services.
Visitor play, Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Wally Rezentes said last week, has been pretty steady throughout the pandemic, but revenue losses are mostly due to the lack of tourism and local play. The course took additional safety precautions, including appointment-only scheduling, limiting group play to six, and limiting tee-times to six-minute intervals.
The county keeps track of rounds by fiscal year. So, from July 2018 to June 2019, 71,955 rounds of tee times were scheduled at Wailua Golf Course. The next fiscal year, 63,051 were scheduled, showing just a hint of the pandemic’s effects.
With the pandemic in full swing from July 2020 to the end of January this year, there were only 45,567 rounds played.
The county has owned the Wailua Golf Course since the 1930s, and became an enterprise fund in 1992.
“Normally the golf course runs a pretty significant deficit annually,” Rezentes said. In the past, the county has been forced to pay more substantial fees to keep the course running. In 2010, the county had to appropriate an extra $650,798, and in 2011 expected a $1.05 million shortfall.
Rezentes said that over the last 20 years, the gap that the General Fund covers has increased and there’s always been “a little reluctance to increase fees for local uses.”
And that’s true, the subsidized infusion of county funds keeps tee-times affordable, especially for residents.
The weekday rate for residents ranges from $1 for a minor to $15, depending on age. A weekend or holiday tee-time ranges from $13 to $20. For a non-resident, a weekday rate is $48 and $60 on a weekend or holiday.
A monthly resident card ranges from $9 for minors to $60, for somebody under 65. A non-resident play card will run about $215.
These rates are staggeringly lower than most private courses. For example, in the latter half of 2020, Kiahuna Golf Club in Po‘ipu, rates began at $55 for games played at twilight after 3 p.m. A round of 18 holes would run about $105.
The last time the county raised fees was in 2014. In 2020, the current administration considered raising fees at the Wailua Golf Course, but opted against it, again, pointing to what was then just the start of a pandemic that would shut down the island almost entirely.
“We had a proposal to increase fees across the board pretty much for the golf course after having discussions with staff … but we held off on pursuing it because of COVID,” Rezentes said. “The situation we’re in now is because user play has drastically declined, our revenues at the golf course have come down. So we’re looking at trying to plug that gap with funds internally, as well as funds from the fund balance to make up the losses.”
Concerned for the long-term operations, councilmember Luke Evslin, during last week’s meeting, noted a national decline in golfing and requested a decade’s worth of expenditures and revenue to see if there were noticeable trends.
Vice Chair Mason Chock, hoping to see the same documents, felt the department could think more creatively to increase revenues.
“To be clear, there are no sustainable golf courses,” Chock said. “We need to look at this piece of property from that standpoint in order to keep this operation moving forward for the community but (also) be able to expand on what it has to offer.”
Councilmember Felicia Cowden requested to see comparative data from other county-owned parks.
“Before we pick on golf too hard, I would like to see what the different parks cost relative to their sport,” Cowden said, pointing to golf’s “pay-to-play” structure.
In 2017, the then-council passed a bill to allow the course to sell alcohol via roving concessions on the green in an attempt to bring in more revenue. This bill was vetoed by then-mayor and now-councilmember Bernard Carvalho Jr., citing liabilities and the potential for increased insurance costs.
The Wailua Golf Course, not only an open space for residents, it also acts as a place to put recycled, non-potable water which is used to irrigate the greens, saving the county money.
The bill was approved on first reading, and a public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 24 and referred to the Committee of the Whole.