COLUMBUS — Only one person spoke during Tuesday night’s public hearing for the 2017-18 city budget.
And he’s a familiar face with a familiar complaint.
John Curry, a regular Columbus City Council combatant, showed up to continue his criticism of the city for subsidizing two municipal golf courses.
“The city of Columbus loses a fortune each year providing municipal golf,” he said.
Curry, who regularly exchanges emails with city officials on the topic, has for years called for the closure of Van Berg Golf Course to eliminate the tax subsidy needed to keep it open.
City officials project the nine-hole course will have an operating loss of $120,206 this fiscal year, with a larger subsidy of $351,530 needed to reach the break-even point at the 18-hole Quail Run Golf Course.
Curry referred to that as an “embarrassing sum of money” while calling on the city council to authorize a study that compares what Columbus spends to operate its golf courses with costs in other cities.
The Columbus man, whose father was a founding member at Elks Country Club, believes closing Van Berg would also help that semiprivate golf course remain viable.
He spent nine minutes making his argument then left the meeting before the city council even voted on the 2017-18 budget, which was unanimously approved without any comments from city officials beyond an explanation of how property tax levies work.
Although his remarks didn’t impact the upcoming spending plan, Curry’s persistence has uncovered some information about the Van Berg property that was previously unclear.
Marion Van Berg, who built the Columbus Sales Pavilion and raced thoroughbred horses, bought the former Wayside Country Club from Elks Country Club after that group built its 18-hole course north of Columbus.
Van Berg gifted the land on the west edge of Pawnee Park to the city in 1969 in memory of his wife Viola.
A covenant attached to the deed of conveyance required the property to remain a golf course or public park, otherwise the land would return to Van Berg, who died in 1971, or his heirs.
However, City Attorney Neal Valorz recently researched the deed in response to an email from Curry and determined, in his opinion, that state law likely nullifies the covenant — meaning the city could use the golf course for other purposes without being forced to give the land back to the Van Berg family.
He also dispelled another long-held belief that Van Berg Golf Course can’t be closed without approval from the public.
The city did briefly close the course after Quail Run opened in 1991, but a citizen-led petition drive got the issue on a ballot. Columbus residents voted 4,413 to 525 later that year to reopen Van Berg Golf Course, and the ballot question stated that the course would remain operational unless a future public vote decided otherwise.
Valorz’s opinion is that state law also trumps that vote, giving the city council the ability to undo the measure with approval from two-thirds of its members.
Although, he noted that this move could be followed by another local petition drive or lawsuit aimed at keeping the course open.
“Should the council not want to decide this issue it could always decide to bring the issue to a vote of the people,” Valorz wrote in a memo.
In an email sent Thursday, Mayor Jim Bulkley said there are no current plans to alter the use of Van Berg Golf Course.
“Because we are not currently having a discussion does not infer that we will not at some point in the future,” he added. “I believe all areas that have high expenses should be reviewed and evaluated. This would not have to be a question framed around the ‘future’ of Van Berg but rather a question framed around the need to constantly look at our operations and see how we can improve.”
Bulkley also noted the potential for public backlash and legal filings should the course be closed and not utilized as a public park.
“It’s one thing to get legal opinions, which we have, but it’s another thing to have those opinions upheld and agreed to by the majority,” he said.
Doug Dunbar, the city’s director of golf, would be among those upset by a decision to close the course.
Although they may not be “great revenue generators,” Dunbar argues municipal golf courses are great assets for communities that improve the quality of life.
“Not only does Van Berg provide a breeding ground for new golfers, it provides opportunities for the younger generation to pick up a lifelong skill,” he wrote in an email sent Wednesday morning.
Van Berg, which has cheaper greens fees than Quail Run, is promoted as a course for less-skilled players still learning the game because of its shorter holes and more-relaxed atmosphere. Youths ages 15 and younger are also allowed to play there at no cost with a paying adult.
Dunbar said closing the nine-hole course would increase congestion at Quail Run, making it more difficult to host junior golf and high school events.
“Closing Van Berg would grossly restrict playing opportunities not only for the general public, but for area youth as well,” he wrote.
The local golf pro noted that the number of rounds played at Quail Run and Van Berg is up roughly 30 percent over the past 12 years, reaching 25,000 to 30,000 rounds annually.
FootGolf, a sport that combines soccer and golf, was also recently added at Van Berg. A total of 161 rounds have been played since that activity was added at the beginning of August, generating $1,571 in revenue.