Bethlehem City Council backed $1.75 million makeover of its popular but cash-strapped Bethlehem golf course, part of Mayor Robert Donchez’s plan to turn around the finances without bringing in a private operator.
The 20-year borrowing, which council backed 5-2, would be for improvements to the sand traps, cart paths, irrigation system, parking lots, clubhouse and a new pavilion.
Officials hope the projects would lead to an increase in the pace of play and provide more amenities that will attract old and new golfers to the 62-year-old public course.
The administration argues that the course, which hasn’t made a profit in a decade, can sustain the debt because of staff restructuring that will reduce operating costs and additional revenue, due in part, to changes in the lease for the restaurant.
“I’m confident with new management structure and labor structure will enable to the golf course pay off debt service moving forward,” Councilman J. William Reynolds said.
Reynolds was joined by council members Adam Waldron, Shawn Martell, Michael Colon and Bryan Callahan in approving the borrowing. Council members Dr. Paige Van Wirt and Olgan Negron voted against borrowing the money.
Van Wirt said she hasn’t seen a firm business plan that shows that golf revenue can pay off a $2.5 million — the cost of the bond once interest is factored in over two decades . She said she is not comfortable putting that risk on taxpayers, who ultimately must back the money if golf revenues don’t cover the $130,000 a year in debt payments.
She said she can’t support that investment in a golf course when community pools are being closed.
Van Wirt said she supported a structured short-term lease that would protect current employees and hold the golf course operators accountable for the quality of play.
Mayor Robert Donchez’s administration called off the search for a private operator in April after striking an agreement with the union over staffing. Under the agreement, four union workers would be replaced by seasonal staff, which work for lower salaries and don’t receive health and pension benefits. Those four union workers are moving into other city departments as openings become available through attrition.
Meanwhile, the City Council on Tuesday renewed a lease with the operators of its golf course restaurant, the Clubhouse Grille, to bring more revenue into the city’s nearly $1.4 million-a-year golf operation.
The lease will increase from a monthly payment of $1,623 this year up to $5,500 next year, bringing it up to market value. The city payments will total $66,000 next year — about $50,000 more than this year. Factoring in 2 percent annual increases, the operator would pay $74,300 by 2024.
That, combined with the labor savings, would give the city enough money to pay back the $1.75 million borrowing with golf revenue and not impact city taxpayers, according to the administration’s analysis.
City Council will take its second and final vote on the borrowing in two weeks.