There is a continuing sketch on a television comedy show entitled, “What’s up with that?”
County officials expressed similar thoughts last week when discussing the ongoing criticism leveled at them by two Triumph Gulf Coast board members concerning the county’s purchase of the St. Joseph Bay Golf Club.
The purchase, roughly $390,000 with a pledge for $100,000 per year in operating funds for the first three years, came from bed tax revenue, tourist tax, not property taxes, county officials reiterated last week.
The course is the county’s lone golf course: visitors or residents wishing to play a round would have to drive at least 45 minutes to the nearest course if St. Joseph Bay was closed.
“It’s not about that golf course making money, it was about that golf course being there,” said Assistant County Administrator Warren Yeager.
And the course would certainly be closed by now if the Board of County Commissioners had not responded positively to entreaties from the golf club’s leadership about the purchase.
“It’s been a blessing for the community,” said Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr. “If we had lost that golf course, a lot of visitors probably wouldn’t have come and residents wouldn’t have a place to play.
“Plus, the pool is a great thing for providing swimming lessons to kids in the community. That purchase was a blessing.”
Why then, commissioners and staff wondered, were Allan Bense and Don Gaetz from the Triumph board so critical about the purchase, particularly when the county assured the Triumph board it would not use ad valorem taxes for the golf course purchase.
And, in turn, did not.
Since the announcement of the purchase, grants to Triumph from Gulf County were considered twice.
The first, as the county, cities and school district sought grant funds to offset property tax shortfalls due to Hurricane Michael, was completed after Triumph board members, particularly Bense, grilled Warren Yeager.
Bense said golf courses were losing propositions and providing more than $4 million in Triumph funds to the county for property tax losses was “bad optics” while the county was buying a golf course.
And, last month, Bense and Gaetz were again critical of the purchase when Triumph was providing final approval for two grants emanating from Gulf District Schools.
Before steering discussion back to the school district, Bense, again criticizing the golf course purchase, and Gaetz said they would vote no if the proposition was coming from the county.
“What do we have to do to get back into their good graces?” Quinn wondered, noting, as did several others present during the special meeting, the county will likely need to call upon Triumph in the future.
Administrator Michael Hammond took a harder line, saying that while Bense was a “fabulous” representative during the time he had represented Gulf County in the Florida House of Representatives and has done business with the county for years, he was also “conflicted” on the issue
Bense, Hammond noted, owns a golf course in Panama City Beach and as owner of GAC Contractors, which does significant business with the county, “shouldn’t vote on any Triumph application for anything out of Gulf County.”
The county could likely sell the course now for significantly more than it paid and “taxpayers are not going to lose a penny,” he added.
“It is one of the best investments we have made,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel, while noting the recent purchase by Walton County, with property taxes, of a golf course.
Hammond also reiterated that the county is designated to receive over $60 million from Triumph Gulf Coast over the ensuing 13 or so years.
He said there could remain hard feelings among some Triumph board members as Gulf County led the legislative lobbying for that pledge of county allocations via legislation this past spring.
“They are an appointed board,” Hammond said. “They aren’t in Gulf County. They don’t represent Gulf County.”