Why we need to keep following the golf course issue even though we’re all sick of it

The golf course debate is about much more that just a contract dispute. As it drags on into its third month, it’s important that city residents remember the bigger issues that are at stake here and remain engaged and vocal about it.

Do we or do we not look for every opportunity to improve revenue for the city?

We all have to take a consistent stance when it comes to evaluating the city’s assets and their associated costs and revenue potentials. Defenders of the status quo at the golf course have asked why we don’t take a similar look at other parks, such as Shuttleworth and Riverlink, which also have commercial viability. In my opinion, we should evaluate those situations as well.

I’ll tell you what, if you take out the unfounded allegations and the hostile tone of the common council’s grilling of Recreation Director Rob Spagnola in regards to the artificial turf project at Shuttleworth, most of the questions were fairly reasonable. But Spagnola presented a well thought out plan that would save the city money over time. He pointed to his own budget request for the year which was lower than last year’s in anticipation of reduced maintenance costs. So far, the council has not refuted that plan with any solid numbers of their own.

And so it is with the golf course. The Golf Commission put in writing a plan that would potentially increase revenues. Certainly, the viability of the plan can be debated. But the common council has yet to go on record with any solid numbers to refute any of the plan points other than to say “I don’t see it.” They have yet to put in writing their own plan to improve the golf course other than to suggest that they oversee the golf course operations themselves. Which leads to the next big issue…

What should the balance between executive and legislative powers be?

At any level of government, there has always been a tension between the powers of the executive and legislative branches. The way I see it, this tension was by design. The original founding fathers wanted to make sure that each branch served as a check and balance to the other.

And so it is with city politics as well. It seems to me based on the actions I’ve seen, is that the larger goal of the common council in this debate is to increase the power of the council and diminish the power of the mayor. The council could have opposed the mayor’s plan by simply voting down any new contract for a golf pro who wasn’t Joe Merendo. Instead, by negotiating their own contract with Merendo, they are trying to set a new precedent that could have ramifications for years to come.

Thinking members of either party need to remember that political majorities are often fleeting. If Republicans succeed in increasing the power of the council, that could easily come back to bite them if we were to have a Democrat controlled council and a Republican mayor someday. We ought to be thinking about getting the right balance between the branches rather than changing the rules to suit whichever side happens to have the majority at the moment.

Are we going to invest in Amsterdam’s future or not?

Whether you personally like Mayor Ann Thane or not, it’s hard to refute that she is one of the few elected officials who actually puts forth a vision for progress in Amsterdam and actually works toward it. Now it’s fine to question and criticize her plans. It’s fine for the common council to put the “brakes” on if needed to reign in spending. But what’s not OK to me is to try to take the wheel from someone who is driving without having any idea as to where you are going yourself! The way I see it, none of the candidates in the last election (Democrat or Republican) presented any type of well thought out vision for a successful city. To me it’s a given that we’ll have to consider spending cuts for this year’s new budget. But we also have to invest wisely if we are ever going to increase revenues. If you only use the brakes and never touch the gas pedal, you’ll eventually end up at a standstill. To me, that is the larger issue for Amsterdam at stake in this golf course debate.

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About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

28 Responses to Why we need to keep following the golf course issue even though we’re all sick of it

  1. The Union College business graduate students submitted a business plan to the city and the Golf Commission in 2009 that identified problem areas and presented a structured solution to increase revenue on the Amsterdam MUNI. This plan was never adopted or followed by the Golf Commission. The contracts for both the Golf Pro and Concessionaire should have been negotiated last year before they were allowed to expire, yet you seem to place blame with the current Council when the status quo was the name of the game for the past 5 years!

    Yes, Mayor Thane has presented ideas to move Amsterdam in a forward direction but these ideas are hardly original, they are in fact taken directly from Amsterdam’s comprehensive plan of 2003. Diane Hatzenbuhler is the only member of Amsterdam City government that was on the committee that created that comprehensive plan for Amsterdam’s future. So before you cast stones, please do your homework!

    The 2014 Common Council has done a lot to reel in an out of control tax and spend city government that was the subject of a scathing state financial audit. Accountability in government means knowing your job and operating within the governance of the city charter, state and federal law. These basic concepts must be understood and applied by everyone involved before we can move forward. The new Council has made a few errors in their effort to reestablish the Councils legislative power rightfully given to them by law. The Mayor has to learn that her job is not to legislate. I think the citizens of Amsterdam have grown so used to an ineffective and dysfunctional Common Council, that the present Council is vilified for taking action, not satisfied with the status quo.
    The 2014 Common Council should be commended for their part in moving us forward. The Mayor however, not so much.

    • AvatarTim Becker says:

      I can think of no rational reason why anyone would dismiss the mayor’s efforts to further the ideas in the comp plan simply because her ideas are “not original”. That makes no sense. Are the ideas good or not? That’s the most important question. The plan was put together as a resource for all public officials. I wish *more* politicians would integrate the ideas into their platforms.

      I am fully aware that Diane was part of the Comprehensive Plan committee – my homework on this was done years ago, thanks for checking 🙂

      After many internet conversations on blogs and FB with Diane over the years, I do not believe she supports the overall direction of the plan. If she’s changed her mind since she was on the committee – that’s fine, I don’t hold that against her. She has indicated to me that she thinks it needs to be revised.

      The mayor has integrated the main points of the comp plan into her platform, and that is a good thing. I don’t see Diane as having done that.

    • AvatarTim Becker says:

      ” yet you seem to place blame with the current Council when the status quo was the name of the game for the past 5 years! ”

      – Why would I blame the current council for what happened in years past? Where did I write that? You are mis-characterizing me on that one!

      I certainly do blame them for blocking a plan to improve the situation without providing a solid, written plan of their own to improve the course’s performance.

  2. AvatarMarie Gavry says:

    I don’t understand why the current council, “Joe the Pro” supporters, and the public in general are not concerned that Joe Merendo has not submitted required paperwork for over 5 years. Why is no one demanding it?

    • Marie, the Golf Pro worked that job for 25 years without having to report how much money he made from renting his golf carts. Mayor Thane insisted he provide that information when she was unable to get the same information from the Golf Commission that was charged with keeping records and running the Golf Course as stated in this 2008 letter from Mayor Thane to the Golf Commission. “Mayor’s letter to the Council of March 2, 2008:
      I am writing to update you about the two-hour meeting with the Commission on Monday. As you know, I had sent a letter on January 22, 2008 to the Commission Chairman requesting the following information: a list of officers, minutes from Commission meetings for the past 2-3 years, a copy of their bylaws, financial statements from the Pro as per the contract they have with him, budgets – past, present and projected, and the short- & long-term strategic plan for the Golf Course which is a stipulated responsibility of the Commission as per the Charter. The Commission did not come to the meeting with this information.
      The figures we have from our audited financial statements indicate a perilous downward spiral. It is obvious that the Course is not a self-sustaining entity, Commission members are right in their assertion that labor costs and capital improvements to the Club House have brought us to a highly debilitated state over the past few years. My concern arises because there is not the close attention to finances we must have (they have no idea how much money the Pro makes) and there is not a plan of action to address our serious needs. The Commission gave me a two-page list of projects that need attending to at the Course (their “Plan”), but no course of action to come to grips with these problems. They kicked around some of the ideas that they had come up with over the years. I requested that they write them down so that they begin to come up with strategies to raise the revenue we need to continue operations at the Course without placing this burden on our taxpayers. Its my hope that we move begin to move this process along.”

      The problem in this scenario seems to be the dysfunctional Golf Commission, which was never solved. Ann Thane tried unsuccessfully to try and exert her control over the situation with a failed total rewrite of the Golf Commission ordinance, giving her sole control , not unlike the recent proposal by the Current Common Council.

      • Avatarrogo says:

        I almost agree jerry, except for statement about not being self supportive. The audited numbers may not be right (will this surpise you) I gaurantee you it has been self supporting since dpw workers salaries were taken out and replaced by seasonal workers. (2010-2011). the only problem is benefit line items were not reduced. Also what is $90,000 admin fee for currnet dubget year for. (siphon money to general fund???)

    • Avatarrogo says:

      Did anyone even read what paperwork was required by pro PRIOR to awarding contract??? Did riverlink or shuttleworth concessionares have to do same???

  3. AvatarPat Q says:

    Did the Golf Commission produce a real study/plan or are you referring to the Union College class project? If the Union College project, it was vague at best and is outdated. I also think that when that project was done the city knew how much money was in the bank accounts and accounting funds. Things have taken a drastic turn for the worse since then and fiscal stewardship is a prudent course. Or maybe things haven’t taken a turn for the worse, do we have all the bank reconciliations done now and will the AUD be submitted accurately and time this year?

    On the other hand, if the contract calls for cart revenue reporting, then the revenue information must be provided. This data analysis would be a great first step in golf course planning. The last time I checked the golf course website was also severely lacking. An online presence, marketing, and course maintenance must be priorities to attract the public. It seems like the contract brouhaha was simply a power play, but it did get the golf course some much needed publicity.

    • AvatarTim Becker says:

      Well, what do you mean by a “real plan”? No doubt, you can poke holes in either the college’s analysis (which I don’t think is “vague” at all) or the Golf Commissions plan which I believe is summarized in their RFP response

      Ideally, I suppose, we’d have a professional marketing/consulting company specializing in golf course management to draw up a plan for us. That, of course, costs money.

      However, there is absolutely no solid proof whatsoever that simply keeping things the way they are, or simply cutting fees, will result in financial improvement for the course. But yet that is somehow thought of as the “safe” route.

      I don’t see the link between plans for the golf course and the bank reconciliation work. Regardless of how that turns out, we know we need to raise new revenues.

      • I have a solution to all the problems that could be solved simply by allowing the golf course to be used 24/7 , 365 day a year, but all those dedicated men (and a few women who gain permission to play).
        1. My first suggestion is to put tower lights on all sections of the course to be used at any time to lengthen the play day for players, so that those who want to play from out of town would be able to play at any time, because now the problem of not being a member and going to the front of the line would be solved. This would help put more revenue in the pockets of those who know that the golf course is the only moneymaker in the city.
        2. Install artificial grass so that when winter comes, those people who want to play, still can, because a simple plowing would clear the way. This would also make the team of maintenance men free to cut grass other places.
        3. Stop talking about the golf course and get a life, because there are many more important issues that need to be dealt with….

      • Avatarrogo says:

        carol do you even know how many women golf here???????

      • AvatarTim Becker says:

        I’d take Carol’s comment with a grain of salt 😉

  4. AvatarKatherine A says:

    Enough already! Amsterdam has suffered enough over the years from negative, good ol boy , keep the status quo thinking. It’s time for progress. I believe that’s why the mayor was re-elected,

  5. AvatarBilly85 says:

    We are not the only city with a dysfunctional government see link below.

    • Avatarbilly85 says:

      after clicking on the link above check out the “Comments” section of the article. It sure sounds very familiar to Amsterdam’s scenario.

  6. This situation is also a copycat of Schenectady MUNI.

  7. Avatarrogo says:

    Here is probably the main question everybody (especially non golfers) seems to ignore. Do you think muni is a CASH COW!!! Muni was set up as a enterprise fund to show tax payer money was not paying bills. This has nothing to do with joe merendo. If you think it is a cash cow and golfers should pay the bills, do the same with bus riders, pool users, and any other park user in city. But remember golf course does support itself do all other above mentioned do also???

    • AvatarTim Becker says:

      The term “cash cow” implies exploitation. I don’t see anything exploitive about implementing ideas to improve the return on the taxpayer’s investment.

      • Avatarrogo says:

        Then lets treat all city venues the same. Make money off shuttleworth, the pool, buses, riverlink etc.

      • AvatarTim Becker says:

        I’m completely OK with that as long as it’s a good plan. I’m not sure if there is potential in every situation you listed, but where’s the harm in looking at it? I don’t think we need to have a hostile inquisition like Diane executed. But if there’s a way to generate a better return, without sacrificing the character or mission, why not?

        I will say this though – I think golfers can afford a slight increase in fees far better than underprivileged kids who may want to use the pool during summer. Just sayin’! But hey – why not look at marketing the pool to various programs and summer camps in the area? I see that being done at Saratoga’s peerless pool. Identify times where the pool is being underutilized and get more people in there at those times. Just food for thought!

      • AvatarRob Millan says:

        Make money off the pool and buses? How? I don’t have a pool, but I imagine that thing costing tens of thousands of dollars just in chemicals and electricity and lifeguards (and their certification). How do you expect to churn a profit while still being able to offer it as an affordable means for people to use?

        And city buses run on fuel, a commodity that changes seemingly on the hour, plus insurance and maintenance. And yet what’s the fare? A few bucks? (as a side note, I personally think the city could do without buses).

        C’mon, let’s be a little fair here.

      • Avatarrogo says:

        I’ll just suggest. To close muni it costs $1700 for an event, what do mohawks pay to close for a event

      • AvatarTim Becker says:

        Not sure, but it’s a perfectly fine question to ask. Although when Mohawks play, the entire park is not “closed” – the playground and other facilities are still open to anyone. It’s not an exact parallel with muni.

        And remember – the main baseball stadium is used by several different organizations, not just Mohawks.

      • Avatarrogo says:

        rob milan i guess only golfers have money, let them pay for everything. Lets see your mayor didn’t renew clubhouse contract last year (lost $11,000 a year times 5 years = $55,000). plus last year she shut down merendo and carts for november, lets estimate another $10,000). Any more numbers you want???

      • AvatarTim Becker says:

        Rogo, your last comment wasn’t quite clear. I know the concessionaire contract was signed late, but I’m not sure that actually lost 55K did it? For the other figure, you’re saying that Merendo had to close early?

    • AvatarRob Millan says:

      Quite the opposite, I think it has everything to do with Joe Merendo actually. Why the fundraiser for Joe? Why the four aldermen saying ‘This is for Joe?’ in reference to awarding him the contract? Why no one demanding accountability from Joe? One particular alderwoman was notorious for demanding just that and even ran her campaign on that but suddenly seems to have stopped short on this one issue only.
      So why can’t Joe fulfill the obligations of his contract in supplying his financials?
      Why can’t the vocal minority admit they want him there as a personal favor versus as a responsible choice?

  8. No, Rogo,
    I don’t know how many women golf there, because I was told a long time ago that unless a woman is a “good” golfer that she should steer clear of that place. Has it changed? I certainly hope so, and golf is a great sport, but enough already with the golf…there are sooooooo many other wonderful ways to get fulfilled, and Amsterdam needs to really have a more well rounded program that will include those who aren’t sports minded, but just enjoy the beauty of life, and the “Arts” in general. The ARTS is what brings beauty to life.

  9. AvatarBill says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Rogo, with his steadfast defense on the golf course and established policy,is a member of Muni. That being said, I’d agree that the facility is an asset to the city, but it must benefit all residents beyond the minority that have treated it for years as their ‘club’. As for the ‘pro’, his apparent refusal to divulge precisely how he benefits personally from an enterprise based on a public-owned facility leads most thinking people to belive he has something to hide. The city shouldn’t tolerate such an obstructive attitude and the ‘pro’ should be told to try that act elsewhere. I doubt it would fly anywhere else. Meanwhile, the Republican council ought to be called to answer by some ethics panel for their behavior in this matter which, at the very least, smacks of cronyism. City residents shouldn’t tolerate that either.