BY ROBERT KNIGHT
Town Board Delays Decision on Future Closing of Broadacres
After a heated debate that lasted more than an hour Thursday, a bitterly divided Orangetown Town Board decided to keep its financially beleaguered Broadacres Golf Course open for this year, but could not reach an agreement on what to do with the nine-hole facility starting in 2013.
The board discussed several options for the future of the course such as selling/leasing it to a private operator, closing it, continue operating it at a loss, or adding it to the acreage of the former Rockland Psychiatric Center that the town is trying to sell to a private developer.
Thursday’s debate showed the sharpest division so far between the two political factions vying for control of the council.
What incited board members and golfers alike, was a memo sent out last week by Supervisor Andy Stewart to his fellow councilmen. The memo indicated that an item would appear on the asking the board to vote on a recommendation to close the Broadacres course immediately. According to the memo the board was to vote on closing Broadacres immediately, and lay off the three or four town employees who maintain and operate it in the interest of balancing the town’s budget.
The memo caught councilmen off guard, and infuriated them. Councilmen said they thought they had reached a consensus just last week to keep Broadacres open for this year, but to continue discussing its future as a town parks and recreation facility.
Stewart apologized for the memo, saying it had been misinterpreted. It was meant to be an internal memo to town department heads, seeking their input on the possible closure of Broadacres, the supervisor said. Copies were accidentally sent to Town Board members. What he was seeking, he said, were ideas from department heads on what could be done with Broadacres to either turn it around financially or reduce its burden on town taxpayers.
Steward said he wrote the memo late at night when he was exhausted. He accidentally worded it as if it was a proposed agenda item for Thursday evening’s board meeting. It was never his intent to have any vote that evening, he explained at the meeting, saying that a “little devil” must have been sitting on his shoulder as he typed the memo.
Despite his Mia culpa, Stewart’s four fellow board members attacked him for the memo. They took turns calling him arrogant and accused him of attempting to be a dictator. Stewart is the only Democrat on the five-member board. Since his election, Steward and the board have gotten along quite well. But now with the golf course debate it appears that the honeymoon is over.
Stewart opened the discussion by saying he sees four major reasons why the Broadacres Golf Course should be closed as soon as possible, and if not this year, then next year at the latest. It is the town’s second course, after the 27-hole Blue Hill Golf Course in Pearl River and it loses a lot of money every year, which the town cannot afford. It is also not essential to the town’s operation as a municipality. Stewart compared it to other town services such as police, sewers and highway, which he said are “clearly essential.” Finally, he said the entire RPC campus must be developed soon if the town is to avoid bankruptcy, and the Broadacres course is an integral part of that overall development plan. If the town can include its acreage into the 70 acres it is already trying to sell in the heart of the former hospital campus, it will make it much more attractive to prospective purchasers and developers, the supervisor asserted.
Councilman Troy, the longest serving member of the board, blasted Stewart for constantly trying to close Broadacres before the council had a chance to discuss it and come to a consensus. The council did agree the week before to keep the course open this year. Troy insisted, that the supervisor should support that decision and not keep trying to overturn or evade it for his own purposes and goals. Troy did agree with Stewart and Valentine that the future of the beleaguered course after its closure for the season this fall is “up in the air,” and that eventual closure was a distinct possibility after a full investigation is completed.
Councilman Diviny, criticized the budget figures quoted by Stewart in a revised copy of his controversial memo, which was distributed at last Thursday’s board meeting. The projected cost savings were inflated by $130,000, Diviny asserted, because the employee earning that salary was merely being transferred to the Blue Hill Golf Course budget, and thus is not a savings at all. Based on that allegedly inaccurate figure, Diviny, an attorney, said he could not believe any of the figures Stewart used in his four-page memo to justify closing Broadacres, now or in the future.
Whereas Stewart had indicated in his initial memo that the town would save $45,000 this year by closing Broadacres immediately, Diviny claimed Orangetown would actually lose $90,000 by closing the course now, when budgeting for the transfer of a groundskeeper is taken into account.
Councilman Morr said that no effort had been made by Stewart or anyone else at town hall to see what would be required to make the Broadacres Golf Course break even financially, or even make a profit in the future. To loud applause from the packed auditorium, Morr continued that such a study must be undertaken as quickly as possible, before any determination can be made about the future of the controversial course.
Following comments by the five council members, residents spoke from the packed auditorium at Town Hall, where over 100 golf enthusiasts had gathered to support their beleaguered course.
The biggest applause, and a prolonged standing ovation, was given to Broadacres Manager Joseph Wrafter, who described himself as a 40-year Pearl River resident who has devoted his life the past eight years to running and improving his nine-hole facility on the RPC campus.
“This is not the right thing to do,” Wrafter said. He operates the course with almost no staff (two or three men, depending on how the accounting between the town’s two courses is viewed) and virtually no budget. He said the course has been ranked as one of the best nine-hole golf courses in the entire United States by the two premier golf magazines, and is rated as one of the best courses of any size in Rockland County and the surrounding area.
“Let’s get our finances accounted for in their proper categories,” Wrafter added, charging that Orangetown is the only municipality in Rockland County to charge the cost of paying off bond issues to initially purchase the courses to their yearly operating costs. While that may be appropriate for Blue Hill, it is not for Broadacres, Wrafter said, because the town is apportioning the entire $7 million bond it issued to purchase the whole 348-acre RPC campus in 2003 to just the little golf course.
And that bond will be paid off next year, Wrafter went on to say, so that Broadacres will start making a profit then, because it will no longer have that huge expense to write off. “Please go back to the drawing board,” Wrafter implored the board as the audience stood and cheered.
Accountant Michael Mandel of Pearl River suggested the board look at other options, such as leasing the course to a private operator for two or three years, thus bringing revenue to the town budget instead of constant expenses. He also suggested doing a cost-benefit analysis, staggering the employee time schedule so that each man works five days a week at straight pay, with no overtime, and explore how to get rid of the CSEA union for Broadacre employees and, if that is not possible, firing the employees and hiring new non-union employees in different job titles. He also urged the board not to close the course at any time, because it will deteriorate so quickly that it will become more costly to restore it if the town tries to re-open it later.
Keith Geasey of Clarkstown described himself as the “reigning champ of Broadacres” and called the course “very well run.” Golf courses are not intended to make money, Geasey said, they are a public service offered by towns just like ball fields and parks. If the town wants to make money there, it can do so through concession stands, renting the facility for weddings, parties and other occasions, and constructing a building where banquets can be held. He also said that while Stewart has claimed Broadacres looses $200,000 a year, closing it would cost the town $160,000 to $200,000, so there would be no savings in the closure, and yet the town would lose a valuable resource.
Eileen Larkin of Palisades, a former councilwoman in Orangetown, urged the board to find ways to make both the Broadacres and Blue Hill courses break even at the very least, if they can’t be made profitable. The town cannot afford to continue operating two courses that lose so much money, she added, noting that the combined loss of the two courses over the past few years is about $2 million.
Sean Walsh, of Pearl River, told the board “We have a gem right here in our own backyard,” but Broadacres has a total lack of marketing and no exposure to the general population and the regional golfing community, most of whom don’t even know it exists. A financial planner, Walsh said he would volunteer to help make Broadacres profitable.
The board reached no conclusion at the end of the meeting, but did agree to continue studying the financial implications of keeping Broadacres open or closing it, or any other alternative that might be suggested. Board members gave no timetable for their deliberations, but indicated that they would prefer to make a final decision sooner rather than later, and within plenty of time to get public feedback, and to make appropriate changes to the town’s 2013 budget, which must be adopted this November.