Audit critical of money-losing Bowden Golf Course

Following a blistering surprise audit that found a lack of control over cash at the city-owned Bowden Golf Course, some Macon City Council members are pushing again to sell the course and get out of the golf business.

The course’s most recent manager resigned in June, after the city’s internal auditor found such poor record keeping at the course that officials can’t say for sure whether money was stolen from the cash register. Now someone from the Macon Finance Department goes to the course every day to do an independent cash count, and the city is looking at using a new computerized records system, said the mayor’s spokesman, Andrew Blascovich.

Employees are also held to a higher standard, and more information — such as a golfer’s name and the amount they pay — is recorded than in the past, according to a written audit response from the city.

But this is not the first time these problems have cropped up at the golf course, which city taxpayers subsidize annually. And the audit has helped revive an old debate: Should the city of Macon own a golf course at all?

“I am certainly open to the suggestion that we put it out for (sale),” Mayor Robert Reichert said last week.

That will be discussed in the coming weeks, with City Council Appropriations Committee Chairman Mike Cranford pushing to sell the course or lease it to a private manager. But that’s not an option for other council members, who say the course provides poorer city residents with a chance to learn a sport often associated with the rich.

Bowden also is a popular spot for several Macon politicians who play the course regularly. As they often note, many city facilities lose money.

“You’re not going to find anybody to buy a golf course at this stage of the economy,” said Councilman James Timley, a Bowden regular. “Selling the golf course is not the answer.”

Timley questioned whether the city also would consider selling its tennis courts if they were losing money.

The golf course also is a perk for city employees who play golf. The general public pays about $10 to play a round of 18 holes during the week. For city employees, including council members, the cost is $5.50. The cost for a cart for 18 holes is $13 for both city employees and the general public.

Many of the same financial problems identified at the course in 2004 and 2005 were still problems in April, according to an internal audit report on the course. That’s when the city’s internal auditor made surprise visits to several city departments that handle a lot of cash.

“Other conditions in other city sites involving cash-handling practices were not as critical in nature and did not result in significant monetary risk to the city,” auditor Erik Shelton’s report states. “However, the conditions at the golf course may represent material financial risk to the city if steps are not taken immediately to improve controls over cash handling.”

Poor record keeping and a lack of accountability for city employees working the cash register made it impossible to tell “whether all of the revenue received by the golf course was in fact recorded and accurately reported,” the report states.

“Nor could we determine whether an increase or decrease from prior years in golf play existed because the documentation is either inaccurate, incomplete, or both,” Shelton wrote.

The course itself appears to be in good shape. The greens and fairways are a lush color of green. Brandon Key, the groundskeeper responsible for course upkeep, has been promoted to interim course manager and has been on the job for about two weeks.

Key said he’d like to see the city keep the course and that he thinks the record-keeping issues can be fixed. He also said he thinks the course can become profitable.

But that’s not much different from what then-course manager Jim Hall said in October 2005, when the course seemed to be on the upswing. Hall said it would take a year, two at most, and the course would be profitable.

That never happened, and city books show the city has subsidized course operations by more than $628,000 since July 1, 2005. The closest the course came to breaking even was fiscal 2007, one year after Hall’s prediction. It lost about $133,000 that year, according to the city finance office.

“We’re on the right track now,” Key said last week. “And I’m sure that’s the same song and dance they heard last time.”

To contact writer Travis Fain call 744-4213.