Count current Triumph Gulf Coast board member and former Florida Speaker of the House Allan Bense as no fan of Gulf County pursuing the purchase of a golf course.
His fellow Triumph board member Lewis Bear, Jr. has had some words of caution.
The board of Triumph Gulf Coast met last week and approved more than $5 million in grants to Gulf County.
The largest grant, for $4.27 million, came from a Triumph fund established to help the four counties most-impacted by Hurricane Michael with potential property tax losses.
In the final language of the grant proposal, the Triumph board included language that expressly barred the county from using any grant funds in the proposed purchase of a golf course.
And the board did so after some pointed criticism from Bense and later Bear.
Initially the Triumph board approved funding only 50 percent of any ad valorem or property tax shortfalls, but officials from Wakulla and Franklin counties would not be applying for hurricane relief funds from Triumph.
So, at last week’s meeting the Triumph board approved disbursing the remaining relief fund dollars to Gulf and Bay counties on a pro-rated basis based the original grant amounts.
Jason Shoaf, Gulf County’s representative on the Triumph board, asked when estimates of tax shortfalls would be certified and was informed they would be by July 1.
Assistant County Administrator Warren Yeager was asked to the podium to discuss how the county would disburse the additional dollars, Yeager noting the original application was for 50 percent so the additional funds would bring local governments closer to “being whole” from Hurricane Michael tax impacts.
Bense quickly turned the discussion to reports of the Board of County Commissioners pursuing the purchase of St. Joseph Bay Golf Club.
“I’m not sure what possessed them to do that,” Bense said.
At its last regular monthly meeting the last week of April, the BOCC heard from Administrator Michael Hammond on the proposed purchase.
Hammond said county staff “have been in negotiations” with the country club and urged board support to “conclude” the deal while providing an outline of the deal.
That outline included a purchase price of the club’s current debt or $390,000, whichever number was lower, that would include all equipment, grounds, the restaurant and meeting room.
The county would hire an operator but would subsidize operations for three years at up to $100,000 per year.
Bense said half-a-dozen Bay County golf courses had recently closed and he had recently passed on being paid to assume ownership of another course.
And there was a very good reason for both.
“They (golf courses) don’t make money,” Bense said, adding that the course which he owns, Holiday Golf Club, makes money only because of the 25,000 rental units and condos within a short distance.
Bear said he was an officer at Escambia County country club for years and every year membership had to be assessed additional fees to meet maintenance needs.
In addition, Bear said he had “lost a couple of million (dollars)” as an owner or investor in golf courses.
“Tell me the Board of County Commissioners is not getting into that business,” Bense asked of Yeager. “I hope you are looking at the numbers.”
And, he added, the county receiving Triumph grant funding for property tax shortfalls while pursuing the purchase of a golf course did not “look real smart” and the “optics are not positive.”
Yeager emphasized the county did not have “ad valorem” dollars for such a purchase and was only contemplating the buy because the county had been approached by the club’s membership.
The county hoped to support tourism by purchasing the club and had a fifth-cent of bed tax generating to apply to the purchase.
“No matter what, ad valorem taxes dollars will not go into that (purchase),” Yeager said.
Given that, Yeager was asked if the county would be okay with the Triumph board ensuring the funds were not used on the golf course in language for the motion approving the grant.
“Absolutely, our board would not have an issue with that,” Yeager said.
Yeager characterized the county as “early in negotiations” with the golf club leadership on the purchase price as well as exploring whether the purchase was a legal use of bed taxes.
Fifth-penny dollars were already set aside for a project at the 10th Street ball parks, but Yeager said that project was now stalled.
Bense said the fifth-penny and property taxes were part of a similar coin to most people.
“Fifth-penny, ad valorem, to the working man that’s taxes,” Bense said. “I sure would caution you about a golf course.”