In Today’s Herald: Sanford Muni still roughing it?

Herald readers will remember some healthy (and some muted) dialogue earlier this year during the City of Sanford’s budget preparations, when the idea of a business privilege tax was being informally floated by city officials as a way to generate needed revenue. Citizens found out about the potential new tax little by little, like a curtain raised slowly to reveal something unpleasant, while at the same time one city council member was breathlessly making the rounds and testing the waters by lobbying for the tax even before the budget was presented to the council.

We pointed out then an obvious question: why institute a new tax on businesses operating within the city limits while an existing city operation – the municipal golf course – was bleeding money? Why not do what many municipalities have done in the last few years and sell the course? Stop pouring money into a money-losing venture and avoid creating a new tax…sell the course to a private owner and stop the drain on resources, and create a new revenue stream – property taxes levied on the course’s new owner.

The matter was slightly more complicated than that, owing to a grant the city received that helped it reclaim wastewater with which to irrigate the course. Still, the issue raised some important questions about the city’s priorities and government’s role in providing taxpayer-funded recreation.

The Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce led the opposition to the privilege tax. And many business owners registered complaints about the tax because of its unfairness (there were plenty of exemptions allowed, plus the fact that the tax was calculated based on revenues collected, not cash flow). When the issue of the golf course was raised publicly in discussions about the tax, those raising it (including The Herald and at least one council member) were accused of unjustly trying to confuse the issue by tying the privilege tax and the golf course into a single package, as well as saying that if we were opposed to the golf course operating at a loss, we should also (it stood to reason) be opposed to all public parks.

At that time, we felt like Westley must have felt in the scene from “The Princess Bride,” where he and the evil Vizzini were engaged in a battle of wits: “Truly,” said Westley, “you have a dizzying intellect.” “Wait ’til I get going!” Vizzini replied. Pause. “Where was I?”

Ultimately, the council found its way to approve the tax. Some members on the council claimed they heard no opposition at all, while others said they’d even had business owners lobby for the tax. At any rate, some changes were made to the privilege tax and more burden was placed on the users of the municipal golf course by raising some fees. In the end we were all as much frustrated with the process as the end product.

Today, we published a story about the golf course, saying that the number of rounds played there have been on an upswing the last few months – in the neighborhood of 25 percent this summer.

That’s a very good thing. Whether it’s enough to put the course in the black financially remains to be seen. Sanford Municipal is still a valuable asset to the city, but as cities everywhere struggle with containing expenses and levying additional taxes to provide services, it’s an asset that needs to continue to he monitored. We’re not out of the rough yet.

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