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Cook County golf courses get nicer, grow profitable

Thursday, December 04, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times
by ABDON M. PALLASCH

The Cook County Forest Preserve golf courses have gone from a $1.5 million-a-year drain on the budget to a $1.5 million cash cow after being privatized, officials said Wednesday.

"Every golfer I know who plays there says the courses look better and are managed more professionally," said County Board member Mike Quigley.

The Billy Casper Golf Co. provided dramatic before and after photographs of the courses. Where once was dirt and patches of grass, now the greens really are green.

"These pictures are worth 1,000 words," said board member Liz Gorman.

Rounds of golf played this season likely will top 400,000, up from 300,000 in previous years.

Board President John Stroger and other commissioners praised the progress, but some county officials said it came at a price: 150 employees lost their jobs when the courses were privatized. Casper hired some but not all of them. Some landed other county jobs.

Union officials complained Casper did not offer the salary and benefits the county did.

Some commissioners had argued against privatization. Government is supposed to offer services for public benefit, such as golfing, at lower prices for seniors and students than are found at private courses, they said.

But after years of wrestling with the issue, county officials in 2002 decided private industry could run the courses better. The county still owns the courses. Casper rents them for $350,000 a year, plus a sliding percentage of profits. The winners so far appear to be the golfers and Cook County taxpayers.

Casper officials Wednesday proposed greens fee increases averaging 7 percent, less for seniors. The rates are still lower than at privately owned courses, they said, especially for seniors.

The first year of beer and wine sales on county courses brought in $180,000. The county gets 20 percent of that.

County commissioners vote on a proposed Forest Preserve budget Wednesday, the day after the vote on the county budget. Stroger proposes a 1.35 percent increase in the tax levy. That would add about 32 cents to the tax bill on a $150,000 home in Cook County.

Some board members sought to delay the vote on the Forest Preserve budget so it would not be lost in the larger county budget debate. But Stroger ruled that motion out of order and told County Board member Forest Claypool to "stop playing games."

Quigley defended Claypool, saying a request to delay a vote was less radical than a commission reorganization Stroger helped push through when Richard Phelan was board president.

"You had a coup to take over -- we're talking about putting something off for a week," Quigley said.



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