City takes next step in considering golf course’s future; Schools look to ‘creative’ solutions for summer and fall classes

A city Parks and Recreation Department slide shows the Heritage Oaks Golf Course property.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

After years of debate over whether the city should be subsidizing a golf course, the Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday began entertaining different options to potentially scale back Heritage Oaks golf course’s operations and asked city staff to hire a consultant to help in making a final decision. 

The council didn’t discuss during Tuesday’s work session how much hiring a consultant would cost. But the consultant would be tasked with reviewing financial implications of closing or repurposing Heritage Oaks golf course, which the city opened in 2001. Under normal operations, the golf course has cost the city an average of $440,000 a year over the last decade.

The decision to move toward hiring a consultant came after Finance Director Larry Propst presented three potential scenarios to the council of potential savings should the city close the course on July 1.

“We made some fairly broad assumptions in these scenarios,” Propst said, noting that the staff did not have any direction on how the property would be used, outside of minimal maintenance on the grounds. 

The three scenarios were:

  • Retaining all full-time employees in some capacity, which would cost the city about $437,000;
  • Eliminating all personnel costs from the golf course’s budget, which would still cost the city about $117,000 for maintenance work and other overhead;
  • Or retaining only full-time maintenance employees to keep up the property beyond the minimum maintenance, which would cost the city about $372,000.

Each of the three scenarios includes selling golf course-specific equipment as the city is able.

Council member George Hirschmann said that closing the course “takes a swing at a part of our population in the city that uses it and enjoys it.” He suggested closing half of the course and leaving nine holes open.

“Then you still have plenty of room to optimize some of the thoughts that you people have been entertaining,” he said.

Council member Chris Jones had suggested hiring a consultant in January but, at that time, could not rally support from the rest of the council. He said Tuesday the cost to customers to play a round of golf is “more expensive than anything else that we subsidize.”

He said the net cost of operating the golf course’s budget is roughly the same as the $430,000 in community contributions that the council plans to allocate to local organizations this year. But Jones said he views the investment in the local organizations that serve myriad functions and needs as more valuable to Harrisonburg. 

Council member Richard Baugh pointed out that the biggest expense to operate the course is personnel, and reducing those costs would mean laying off workers during the pandemic, which would be a difficult decision.

“The bulk of the cost are the personnel costs. So if the goal is to save a significant amount of money, it would be the elimination of the personnel costs,” City Manager Eric Campbell said.

Jones pointed out that it was unlikely a consultant would be hired and have completed a comprehensive study by May 31, when the council needs to adopt the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget. 

In light of that timeline, the council also directed the Parks and Recreation department, which operates the golf course, to propose its own expense cuts to the council.

Mayor Deanna Reed said council will still have to amend the budget after it’s passed this month, as the city navigates the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19. The city announced in a press release Monday that local tax revenue has fallen $4 million short of its projected $95 million in tax revenue for the current fiscal year, prompting the indefinite layoff of most part-time city staff. 

Council tweaks funding for service agencies

The council also unanimously approved changes to the community contributions portion of the budget, which included adding several items that weren’t part of the city staff’s initial proposed budget. 

The additions included: 

  • $20,000 for 4-H;
  • $5,000 for the Northeast Neighborhood Association;
  • $4,000 for Strength in Peers;
  • $5,000 for United Way of Rockingham and Harrisonburg;
  • About $10,000 each for three daycare centers: the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Child Daycare Center, Roberta Webb Childcare Center, and Second Home Learning Center. 

In addition, the council reduced by $10,000 the proposed amount for Way to Go, a nonprofit that assists with low-income families’ transportation needs. It would be slated to get $20,015 in the updated version of the budget. 

Reed recused herself from the discussion and vote about community contributions because she is the program director of On the Road Collaborative, a student empowerment organization and after school program that was included in the budget for $17,630. 

School board anticipates continued distance learning

Later on Tuesday evening, Harrisonburg Public School Superintendent Michael Richards briefed the school board on plans for summer school — including online offerings — and the expectations for the 2020-21 school year. 

“We need to be creative in our thinking, because we are facing unprecedented circumstances,” Richards told the board in its regular meeting Tuesday night. 

He said his staff is designing an online, distance-learning summer school program. They are still deciding what courses to offer, who will teach those classes and what those teachers will be paid, Richards said.

He’s also assembling a task force, which will begin meeting this Thursday, to flesh out three scenarios for the 2020-21 school year. 

“We’re hoping to be back in the buildings, but we’re not expecting it to be business as normal,” Richards said. 

If the buildings are opened but social distancing must still be maintained, “there are added challenges. The high school is overcrowded.”

The three scenarios the task force will detail are:

  • The pandemic clears, and the school year can proceed as usual;
  • the pandemic prevents in-school learning, and distance learning must be continued;
  • or a hybrid scenario in which a combination of in-school and distance learning could, for example, allow high school students to alternate days attending in person with days learning from home to prevent crowding in the school building.

“It’s an enormous task,” School Board Chairman Andy Kohen said.Richards also said that as they make decisions that must be communicated to students and families, they have enlisted the help of high school teacher Valerie Kibler’s journalism students, who will produce informational videos to post on the school district’s website. Those videos also will be posted on social media platforms students frequently use.

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