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Going for the green

Fees are going up at county golf courses. The city owns courses too. But are government-run services such as golf courses a thing of the past?

March 25, 2011

County supervisors voted Tuesday to increase a number of fees, including greens fees at public golf courses. Outrageous? No. Smart. And appropriate.

Few but avid golfers — the enthusiasts of more typical means, not the rich ones who can join private country clubs — may be aware that Los Angeles County provides public courses for modest greens fees. It's one of those things that, for golfers, enhances the region's quality of life. Like tennis courts and other public sports facilities, the county Department of Parks and Recreation's 17 public golf courses provide recreation, not in more developed and more expensive urban areas but generally in smaller, less built-up cities and unincorporated areas.

Public golf is nice to have. But given the amount of park space taken up by golf courses and the proportion of people who use them compared with those who would like to have more soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball diamonds or picnic grounds, it makes sense to ask whether golf is the best use of county resources — especially since the use of public space is by definition subsidized by all county taxpayers, even when fees rise to meet the immediate costs of operations.

The fee hikes, made pursuant to a required annual review, are modest, to say the least. It will cost $1 more, or $26, to play at regulation 18-hole courses on weekdays, and $2 more, or $35, on weekends. That's still about 25% less to play golf at county courses than at the average public course in Southern California, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation. The new funds will go toward maintenance.

County government is strapped, but it's in better shape than the city of Los Angeles, which has 14 golf courses of its own in more congested and expensive urban areas. The city is — or should be — in the soul-searching process of rethinking what services and benefits it absolutely must supply residents and which ones it can no longer afford. City budget-crunchers must begin to see that golf belongs to an era not merely in which a greater proportion of residents played the game, but which had different priorities for civic dollars that were then far less scarce.

One problem is that cuts to the city parks department, which runs city golf courses, are likely to be met by a ballot measure similar to the one approved several weeks ago that took more money from the budget and awarded it to libraries. This isn't setting priorities; it's the public saying "no" to leaders' efforts, however sluggish and feeble, to set budget priorities and make choices. It's up to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council to lay out for voters where the city should go, what it should do and what it must do without.

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