A tight economy has Modesto's three golf courses in the rough, swinging to keep up with declining attendance and greens fees.
Modesto could sink $350,000 in the red on its golf spending next year, exacerbating a $10 million shortfall the city projects for the budget year that begins July 1.
Those trends could lead to reduced maintenance at the courses as the city tries to align expenses with an extended downturn in tax revenue.
"Anything's on the table at this point," said Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh, who participated in a discussion on the golf courses' losses last week.
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So far, the city has identified $180,000 in savings from delaying capital purchases, decreasing staffing and relaxing maintenance standards, such as cutting back on tree-trimming and fertilizer.
The city expected to spend $2.4 million on its golf courses this year, and it anticipated at least breaking even with the fees it charges. That hasn't happened in the past five years, according to a city report.
Marsh, a councilman who is comfortable throwing out ideas for big changes to start conversations, suggested the city consider closing its nine-hole Municipal Golf Course on Tuolumne Boulevard.
His idea hasn't gained much traction, partly because people likely would continue to golf there without paying greens fees, leading to a situation where the city would pay to maintain a park but forgo revenue from it.
City leaders are reluctant to raise greens fees while they weigh maintenance cuts.
"We have a choice, really, if we want to eliminate the budget deficit: We either have to make service cuts or we have to raise the price, and I don't think raising the price is acceptable at this time," Marsh said.
"I don't want to see more golfers drop off just because we've raised the fees," said Julie Hannon, acting director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department.
Those charges top out at $15 for weekends on the Muni course, $26.50 for 18 holes at Dryden and $29.50 at Creekside. They're less expensive on weekdays and for seniors and children.
Some golfers at Muni said they prefer to pay a small fee hike rather than see the city scale back.
"I'd rather they raise the fees than cut the maintenance. Maintenance is everything to a golfer," said Frank Leo Jr., 80, of Modesto. Leo used to be a caddy at the course in his teenage years.
"It's like work," he said. "You go to work in a nice environment, you enjoy working. You golf in a nice environment, you enjoy golfing."
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.