Subsidizing golfers doesn't make sense
As city council prepares to debate what to do with its money-losing golf courses, the following scenario might help illustrate to taxpayers why it makes sense for city hall to get out of the golf business:
Imagine two brothers who live in Calgary and enjoy playing sports – Bill likes bowling while his brother Gary likes golfing.
When Bill wants to head out for a night of bowling, he searches on Google and a number of different businesses pop up. If Bill finds one that looks appealing, he can put on his dad’s old “Pin Pals” bowling shirt, pop by the alley of his choice and pay for a round or two of bowling.
As you can see, Bill’s favourite sport isn’t subsidized by the City of Calgary and the city doesn’t own any bowling alleys. Bowling is an entirely commercial recreational activity.
When it comes to Bill’s brother Gary and his love for golf, the situation is quite different.
Like bowling, golf is also a commercial activity. However, unlike bowling, the City of Calgary is knee deep in the golf course industry and it is losing millions.
If you search on Google, you’ll find there are more than 40 golf courses in the Calgary area. Most of them are run by businesses, but the City of Calgary owns six courses.
And if Gary decides to play a round of golf at one of the City of Calgary courses, he still has to pay, but as the city’s courses regularly lose money, they are propped up with property tax dollars from all Calgarians.
That means Gary’s round of golf is partially paid by all Calgarians, including his brother Bill.
While the brothers in this example are fictitious, the subsidy problem is very real.
City of Calgary data obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation shows that from 2015 to 2017, the city lost $2 million through it six golf courses.
Some have argued that the City of Calgary should continue to own and operate these courses at a loss, because they offer affordable golfing. Respectfully, we would note that golf isn’t exactly a sport known for catering to low-income people. Further, there are already privately-run golf courses in the Calgary area that offer affordable rates to the public. For example, for $20, you can play an evening round at Fox Hollow Golf Course.
Others have justified the losses by comparing City of Calgary golf courses to city soccer and baseball fields. But those are apples to oranges comparisons.
If you do a Google search for baseball or soccer fields in Calgary, you won’t find very many businesses running such facilities – the vast majority are on government property (located at schools or in public parks).
Second, if a city baseball or soccer field isn’t being used, anyone can walk up and start kicking a soccer ball around, fly a kite, practice their handstands, etc. There’s no charge.
Conversely, the public can’t do the same if a city golf course isn’t being used. Golf course fees are mandatory and you wouldn’t be welcome for very long if you held a handstand competition with your friends on the first tee box.
Others have drawn comparisons between golf and other city services such as libraries and public pools. We believe there’s a key difference – businesses aren’t running for-profit libraries and public pools. And frankly, if there were dozens of privately owned, for-profit public pools around Calgary, we would absolutely suggest the city sell off their pools.
When it comes to golf, the City of Calgary is competing with private businesses and is actually making it harder for those businesses by keeping the city’s prices artificially low.
Sure, golf course losses aren’t a lot of money in the grand scheme of the city’s overall budget. But addressing the problem is just another example of how the city could save money and help minimize future property tax hikes.
Colin Craig is the Alberta Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation
This column was published in the May 26, 2018 edition of the Calgary Herald