HILO — A county subsidy allowing Big Island golfers to pay just $25 greens fees at two West Hawaii golf courses began Friday, but it could be the last year for the popular program.
The county started providing subsidies in 2006 in an attempt to make recreational opportunities more equitable for West Hawaii residents, who pay more than 76 percent of property taxes, but have just a fraction of the parks and other recreational amenities enjoyed by East Hawaii residents.
Mayor Billy Kenoi said in early 2009 that although the economic slowdown is tightening the county’s spending for new projects, West Hawaii should see a more equal share of the Parks and Recreation budget. He appointed West Hawaii resident Bob Fitzgerald to head the sprawling agency.
But Fitzgerald told West Hawaii Today last week that trying to make the two sides of the island more equitable is hindered by history itself. East Hawaii has more facilities, he said, because the county received most of them from the former plantations. Large landowners in West Hawaii, in contrast, have been less generous with contributions of park land, gymnasiums and other amenities, he said.
The West Hawaii golf subsidy is meant to offset subsidies at the only county-owned golf course, Hilo Municipal Golf Course.
East Hawaii golfers pay greens fees of just $12 on weekdays and $17 on weekends at Hilo Municipal Golf Course. Taxpayers chip in $361,379 for operating costs, with the remainder of the annual $1.13 million budget coming from golf course revenue, including greens fees and vendor fees.
This year, instead of providing $80 worth of vouchers each month giving golfers $10 off greens fees at participating West Hawaii golf courses, the county program allows Big Island golfers to pay $25 with ID at Makalei and Waikoloa Village golf courses. County taxpayers are making up the $417,265 difference.
Kamaaina greens fees at West Hawaii golf courses that don’t get the county subsidy range from $40 at Waimea Country Club and $45 at Big Island Country Club to $63 for the mountain course and $73 for the ocean course at Kona Country Club. That facility, however, is offering a summer special of $35 and $50 for Big Island residents only.
All of that could change next year, Fitzgerald said. His agency is evaluating all of its fees and trying to make facilities more self-supporting.
Fitzgerald anticipates holding a public hearing early next year on increasing Hilo Muni golf fees in order to implement the new fees when the next budget kicks in July 1. Once Hilo Muni is self-sufficient, there won’t be the need to provide West Hawaii with subsidies to maintain parity, he said.
“The idea is to increase self-sufficiency,” Fitzgerald said. “The County Council has expressed opposition to the golf subsidies.”
He’s hoping the golf program can increase concessions and offer some tournaments to raise money to offset fee increases at the public course.
The county has a long way to go before West Hawaii is equal, especially in the area of Parks and Recreation.
All of the county’s five civic auditoriums are located in Hilo. Furthermore, the county’s only zoo, equestrian center, municipal golf course and drag-racing strip are located in Hilo. Combined, these facilities receive about 11 percent, or $2.8 million, of the department’s budget, although West Hawaii residents do not have the opportunity to regularly enjoy these facilities.
Talk of an affordable municipal golf course in West Hawaii has gone on since 1990, when the county sought to build an 18-hole course on nearly 194 acres of state land that the county has by executive order in an area mauka of the landfill and police station, and north of The Villages of Laiopua.
Despite the county granting a permit to begin building in 1991 to Japan-based Kealakehe Associates, nothing has come of a municipal golf course in West Hawaii beside the county notifying the developer in 2001 that the contract was void.
As for West Hawaii receiving an affordable municipal golf course that has been in the county’s plans for nearly two decades, Fitzgerald has said, “I don’t see that in today’s economic times, especially when the private golf courses don’t seem to be making it very well for the county to have a golf course make it.”
Two West Hawaii County Council members have encouraged Fitzgerald to cut golf subsidies. South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford and Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffmann say it sends the wrong message to raise taxes when luxuries such as golf remain in the county budget.
“I simply cannot vote for a golf subsidy program at a time like this when people are unemployed or underemployed and homes are being foreclosed and the food bank is running overtime,” said Hoffmann, a golfer himself.
Their attempts to cut subsidies last year, however, failed when a majority of the council refused to support them.
Fitzgerald said earlier this year it would take only a $5 increase to Hilo Muni’s $12 weekday and $17 weekend greens fees to make up that difference. But he said the increase would be unaffordable for many of the seniors who use the golf course.