Golf commission recommends keeping Merendo, mayor & council members disagree

The municipal golf course commission voted 4-1 yesterday to recommend that the city keep Joe Merendo, the course’s golf pro, for at least one more year. However, Mayor Michael Villa and several common council members who attended the meeting, said they are ready to hire someone new to fill the position.

The discussion comes on the heels of the most recent audit report showing that in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, golf course fund expenses exceeded revenues by $121,380, contributing to a negative $481,153 overall fund balance. Audit reports also show losses of $95,129 in 2014-2015 and $82,087 in 2013-2014.

Commission Member Ron Barone said that given that two other contracts, one for the golf carts and other for the course concessionaire, were due for renewal at the end of the year, that it made sense to take more time to discuss all three.

“Why not leave things as they are right now. Make a suggestion to the aldermen that we sit down the whole year and figure out what direction we actually want to go in,” said Barone.

Given that the course opens in the spring, he said, “At this time you’re short-changing everything, right now you only have a couple of months to do anything.”

Barone added that any new golf pro would have to completely re-stock the pro-shop, which is currently run by Merendo.

Commission Member Peter Bylina said, “As far as getting rid of the pro, I’m against. it. Number one, I’ve worked with him seventeen years…In my opinion, he’s done a great job.”

“Plus he’s a veteran,” added Bylina. “There’s no way you’re going to treat a person that’s been on 30 years and throw him out the door. You’re going to let him go out on his own.”

Alderman Jim Martuscello spoke during the meeting and said that the council discussed the matter of Merendo’s contract during an executive session last week and said the consensus was that they would look for a new golf pro.

Alderman Chad Majewski, who is the council’s liaison to the golf course said, “We’re looking to address how are we going to bring revenue back into the course? The course has been losing revenue for the last couple of years. How are we going to do that, the way we’re doing business right now? Secondly, how, if we’re going to continue doing business the way we are doing it right now, are we going to bring membership up which has been in decline over the last couple years? And if we’re going to continue doing business the way we’re doing right now, how are we going to get more tournaments into the course?”

Majewski continued, “The thought was, if we bring somebody new in, somebody who is more entrepreneurial, someone who is a little more aggressive, that they could possibly look at fixing some of these issues that we’re having at the golf course right now.”

After listening to Majewski, Barone reiterated his idea of waiting another year to make any changes

Majewski said, “If we leave everything as-is, how are we going to address those three problems?”

“I don’t think it’s a big problem myself, I really don’t,” replied Barone.

Alderman Paul Ochal said, “Despite the efforts that the commission has made, which are many, and they’ve made some progress…we have to look at the possibility of making some other arrangements.”

Martuscello said the details as to salary and responsibilities of the new pro, as well as other potential changes to staffing and operations at the course are still being discussed.

Commission Member Kim Brumley said it was important for the commission to know as soon as possible what the costs will be in order to set rates and present a budget to the council.

Brumely added in regards to the council members’ position, “I think you’re making a mistake, but it is most certainly your prerogative…I think it’s a bigger picture than just the pro.”

Commission Chair Matt Beck said, “It’s going to be very difficult to set rates, or give recommendations on rates, if we don’t know what our bottom line and what we need to try to cover is.”

Commission Member Michele Russo cast the only no vote against the recommendation.

Martuscello said that the council would consider the commission’s recommendation. However under city laws, the recommendation is not binding and the mayor has final say on hiring, firing, or negotiating contracts for the course, while the council has the authority to approve the golf course rates, to approve contracts and to budget funds for the course.

Majewki asked the opinion of Course Superintendent Darren Graf, who is not a voting member of the commission. Graf replied, “The commission knows where I stand on this. I’ve thought we’ve needed to replace him a long time ago. My thought on the pro is that person drives business to the golf course and I don’t know if that happens now.”

Reached for comment after the meeting, Mayor Michael Villa said the department needs to look for ways to improve revenues in order to be sustainable, and as a part of that effort, would like to see a new golf pro with responsibility for overseeing the entire course.

Citing the city’s financial situation, Villa said, “If we don’t start taking steps now, we’ll be in the same boat as we are now.”

Villa said that the consensus among the council members is to hire a new golf pro, and added, “I’m not going to oppose that view because I feel the same way.”

Although the city has not advertised for the position, Villa said he and other council members have been approached by people interested in the job and hoped to make a decision soon.

Villa stressed that hiring a new golf pro was just one of many changes that need to be looked at for the course, and said that he and the council are still considering options for using department of public works employees to maintain the course, how to operate the pro shop, and how to run all pro-shop purchases, course fees, and cart rentals through the same cashier.

Alderman Bill Baaki also attended the meeting, and when reached for comment later wrote, “I support Mayor Villa in his efforts to get the city back on financial track and to explore creative new solutions to address the deficit including the golf course. I’m personally hopeful that the logistics can be worked out in a way that takes into account everyone’s concerns because the golf course is a true treasure that should be only a blessing to the community not a source of division.”

Alderman Rodney Wojnar, who is recovering from a car accident, did not attend the meeting, but was adamant in an interview in November 2017 during his re-election campaign that a new golf pro should be hired and given managerial authority over course operations.

Tim Becker

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