Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Battle of Sligo Creek Golf Course, Part Four

The last myth of Sligo Creek Golf Course is a doozy and demonstrates a bit about how our county government functions.

Myth #3: Ike Leggett is the savior.

I first joined the Sligo battle in the summer of 2007. Several politicians have taken tangible actions to help the cause since then. Council Member Valerie Ervin obtained MCRA’s detailed financial records when they claimed they didn’t exist, protested when MCRA broke the Open Meetings Act and has devoted significant staff time to this issue. Council Members Ervin, Marc Elrich, George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen helped defeat MCRA’s expansion proposal. County Executive Ike Leggett recommended against the expansion in early 2008. But other than that, the County Executive was not much of a player in the debate for two years until he called for a $150,000 taxpayer subsidy last week.

Now here is what the mainstream media has never reported. Less than two weeks before Leggett’s announcement, his Assistant Chief Administrative Officer – the second-ranking member of Leggett’s management team – wrote the following email to a constituent stating that Sligo could not be saved:

Dear Ms. [Name Withheld]:

I am responding on behalf of Mr. Leggett to your email questioning the Montgomery County Revenue Authority's proposed return of the Sligo Creek Golf Course to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. I don't know if you have the historic background, so I am briefly recapping what led up the Revenue Authority, which operates under the direction of an independent Board, agreeing to assume the MNCPPC courses.

The arrangement arose out of Council budget deliberations about MNCPPC's budget. The MNCPPC golf system was structured to be paid for out of user revenues and not from the County's tax supported general fund. In fact, MNCPPC found that its system costs were not covered by user revenues and the general fund was subsidizing the MNCPPC golf system.

The Revenue Authority has its own successful system of public golf courses. These courses were being operated profitably and were not being subsidized by the County's general fund which is limited and covers many competing needs such as schools, roads, government facilities, etc. Councilmembers recognized this and that there was duplication with two separate public systems of golf and that efficiencies could be realized by combining the two together.

Thus, the Revenue Authority Board agreed, with the approval of the MNCPPC and the County Council, to take over and merge the MNCPPC golf courses into its golf course system and create a single system of public golf. The Revenue Authority assumed all of the debt that went with these golf courses as well. The Revenue Authority is not supported by tax funds. Because it was assuming MNCPPC's debt obligations for its golf courses, it needed to ensure that these courses did not become a financial drain that would impair the system of public golf.

The Revenue Authority found that the Sligo Creek Golf Course is not profitable. In an effort to make the Sligo Creek Golf Course profitable, the Revenue Authority proposed making changes to the golf course that would encourage greater family use of the facility including a driving range, rerouting the golf course to be played as a 3-hole, 6-hole or 9-hole course and to provide a modest miniature golf area. Over the past two years, the Revenue Authority worked with Community members trying to find a solution for the Sligo Creek golf course to enable it to achieve financially stable operations. Unfortunately the community process was unsuccessful in establishing a common ground and the Revenue Authority Board made the difficult decision to return the Sligo Creek course to the MNCPPC.

The County Council approved the lease amendment that will enable the course to continue to be operated by the Revenue Authority through the Fall of this year. The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission is now considering park recreation uses for this property so the park will continue to be available to the community. For more information you may want to contact Park and Planning's Department of Parks at (301) 495-2500.

It is very unfortunate that a better solution could not be achieved. If you need more specific information about golf you may also wish to speak with Mr. Keith Miller, Executive Director of the Revenue Authority. He can be reached at (301) 762-9080.


Diane Jones

Diane R. Schwartz Jones
Assistant Chief Administrative Officer
101 Monroe Street, 2nd Floor
Rockville, Maryland 20850
tel. 240.777.2561
So why did the County Executive’s office change course? Last month, Council Member Valerie Ervin directed the council staff to figure out how Sligo could remain open. The big question was how to finance it and the staff began working through the options. Leggett’s staff got wind of this, ran to the press and prematurely proposed tax dollars so that they could be hailed for “saving” Sligo.

I have written over 600 blog posts chronicling Maryland and Montgomery County politics. Rarely have I seen a more inexplicable political reversal. First, only days before calling for tax money for golf, Leggett warned of the need for furloughs. How will the public employees, not to mention the Lords of Annapolis, regard his cries of poverty on the budget now? (And let’s not forget the helicopters.) Second, at the time Leggett’s staff put out their announcement, they already knew of the opposition it would receive. Many in the council building believe that Leggett wants to look like Santa Claus while the nine Grinches are pelted with snowballs by the Sligo golfers. Third, the work of finding a way to keep the course open had already begun at the direction of Valerie Ervin. True public service involves quiet, relentless work behind the scenes. It does not always show up on newspapers or blogs, but that is how the heavy lifting gets done. Government by press release benefits no one.

It is time to end the Battle of Sligo Creek Golf Course once and for all. If Sligo is to remain a golf course, it can be returned to MCRA with no need for county tax money. If MCRA refuses to take it back, the County Council can turn down its capital budget requests and the General Assembly can reject all of its local bills. MCRA can not hold out for long against that kind of pressure. As for our increasingly scarce tax dollars, they are best used for protecting our schools, supporting public safety, building our infrastructure and maintaining the social services on which our most vulnerable residents depend.