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Annual bailout needed early for Jacksonville’s golf courses

Thomas Clatterbuck

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The Jacksonville municipal golf courses ran into trouble a little early this year. Usually at the end of the year, the golf courses are short on cash and need the city’s help to make payroll. Typically, the courses request around $10,000 in late November. This is not surprising considering the courses perennially lose substantial amounts of money.

But this year, the request is much larger, and came much earlier. The courses requested $50,000 at the August 28th City Council meeting. According to the City Clerk, that $50,000 may not be enough to cover the remaining payrolls and purchases the course will face this year. Even with lower expenses, the courses are suffering from revenue shortfalls. Play is down at the Jacksonville courses, as it is at most courses around the nation.

What will the city do?

Based on the council’s discussion, the golf courses are going to continue to lose money, and taxpayers are going to continue to prop them up. The most substantive suggestion on what to do was to simply roll the budget for the courses into the Parks & Lake budget. This would make it easier to funnel money to the courses, while simultaneously making it harder to tell how much money they lose. Perennial revenue shortfalls make the bailout request an unpleasant annual ritual for the council. Councilors were obviously annoyed to be defending the losses from community members that raised issues with this year’s bailout.

The last four years have seen six-figure losses at the city’s golf courses. This week’s funding request suggests this year is going to be just as bad, and probably much worse.  If the city council thinks having municipal golf courses is a net positive for the community, they need to own that decision. If that means higher taxes, so be it. Merely proposing changing the accounting suggests that the council does not believe the taxpayers share their support for the Links.

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Senior strategist, statehouse reporter and political correspondent for Springfield Daily. Graduate of District 117 and UIS. Thomas covers stories in both Morgan and Sangamon Counties, as well as statewide politics.

Local

Golf revenue continues to fall in Jacksonville

Thomas Clatterbuck

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2018 was another bad year for the Jacksonville’s Links golf courses. Like most municipal golf courses, the Links loses money every year. It was clear as early as August that 2018 was going to be a particularly bad year for the courses. The recently released 2018 audit shows just how dire the situation is becoming for the courses.

Total operating losses totaled $198,000. This is nearly triple the losses suffered in 2012. Expenses were up eight percent since ’12. The real driver is that revenue is down 24 percent, from $377,000 in ’12 to just $288,000 last year. This is why the cash infusion from the city came much earlier in the year; the Links was struggling to cover payroll expenses due to low revenue. And unlike in years past when the bailout is needed in the winter months, last year the Links needed help during the fall.

Fixing the root problems at the course will not be easy. Golf participation is declining nationally, and Jacksonville has not been spared from these trends. But the first step is admitting there is a problem. A golf advisory committee was created in February 2018 and they did provide some good recommendations for improvements. But their last meeting was more than a year ago. In full council meetings, council members are reluctant to even acknowledge that revenue is down substantially from years past.

Six-figure losses are the new normal for the Links. It is up to the council to decide if they want to continue to write these losses off, or come up with a more sustainable plan for the courses.

You can read the full audit here.

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Business

Local Airbnbs to City Council: let us pay taxes

Thomas Clatterbuck

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Who wants to pay more in taxes? Normally, business owners point to Illinois’ high tax burden as a problem, but some property owners in Jacksonville actually want to be allowed to pay more. One of these owners is E. Scott DeWolf, who runs an Airbnb location in Jacksonville. But when DeWolf went to the city to voluntarily pay the hotel motel occupancy tax, he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Airbnb is a short-term rental service where property owners can rent out rooms or buildings that they own. DeWolf was joined by Professor Kevin Klein and Bryan Leonard to discuss the positive impact Airbnb has had on the local tourism environment. They shared how the experience they can create in their properties fills a niche that regular hotels don’t, and that this draws visitors from across the state and even some from over seas.

However, despite being an internationally recognized brand, Airbnb still operates in a legal grey area. Listings aren’t considered rental properties, because visitors have short stays like at a regular hotel or bed and breakfast. But they aren’t recognized as hotels either because they are otherwise residential properties. As a result, since the start of Airbnb, taxation has been an issue. While Airbnb has taken some voluntary steps to collect the occupancy tax, this collection has varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. To further complicate matters, not every area wants Airbnb to operate there. Adding new rooms may impact the viability of existing hotels, and adding new traffic to residential areas can disrupt neighborhoods. In Jacksonville’s case, Airbnb is not recognized as a hotel, which is why they cannot pay the local occupancy taxes.

It may seem strange that Airbnb operators would want this to change. Why ask the council to raise their taxes? There is a very pragmatic reason: if Airbnb locations do not pay the occupancy tax, they cannot advertise with the local tourism boards. This keeps them out of some of the main local referral networks. They cannot even leave brochures with the tourism board.

But their request is also driven by a genuine commitment to the community. These owners have heavily invested in building up their properties and enhancing local tourism. And adding more rooms is necessary for Jacksonville’s busiest tourism days. When sporting events take place, or the college host graduation, visitors often have to room as far away as Springfield or Lincoln. Building up a healthy community is good business for everyone.

In the mean time, DeWolf said that they were still willing to contribute to the community even if they cannot pay taxes directly. He personally offered to donate 5% of his sales, equivalent to the tax he can’t pay, to the Jacksonville Heritage Culture Museum.

You can watch their full presentation in the player above, and the rest of the city council meeting below.

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Integrated Resource Plan recommends shift towards renewables

Thomas Clatterbuck

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What does the future hold for CWLP? Currently, four coal-fired Dallman units provide almost all of Springfield’s power. But that may change soon. At the Monday meeting of the Public Utility Committee, experts from The Energy Authority (TEA) unveiled the results of their months-long integrated resource plan (IRP), which called for major changes to the utility.

The IRP is based on economic models. Energy markets are impacted by many different factors, including the price of fuel, government regulations, market demand, and even the weather. It is impossible to know how the future will play out, but by running many scenarios, TEA was able to come up with recommendations that fit the most likely futures. By 2031, power generation will be evenly split between renewables and coal (53-43), up from the current 100 percent coal generation. Improvements to energy efficiency will account for the remainder.

Phasing out coal

Coal will play a much smaller role in CWLP’s future. Every scenario called for retiring Dallman units 1 and 2. These units should be retired in the next few years; possibly as early as 2020. Additionally, Unit 3 was also recommended to be retired. However, because of the logistics of the plants, unit 3 will take longer to decommission.

This recommendation was based on the economics of coal. Kevin Galke, who presented for TEA, said that fracking was a “game changer” for energy markets, and one that no one saw coming. At the same time, renewable energy has also become substantially more competitive. This combined with the high capital expenses at the units, made them economically unviable.

But coal is not totally eliminated from the portfolio. Unit 4 is expected to provide energy for the city for at least the next decade. Its ultimate fate depends in large part on the price of coal. If the city can keep coal costs low, unit 4 remains much more viable than if prices continue to climb. However, in the event its capacity needs to be replaced, a gas plant is a more likely choice than a new coal one.

Adding in renewables

Renewables are the source of choice to replace coal. TEA acknowledged that many renewable projects in the past had been motivated by social consciousness rather than economics, but that new technologies were changing that landscape. Under the TEA plan, renewables will account for nearly half of the city’s power by 2023 and into the 2030s.

The transition from the Dallman units to renewables will be facilitated by a few years of heavy market purchases. But after the transition is complete, the city should return to being a net seller of energy.

What comes next

The IRP was just the first step in creating the future of CWLP. Now that the city knows what direction it needs to go, the task of implementing this plan will fall to the city council. Their task will not be easy. Taking coal plants offline is in many respects just as hard as building them, due to the complicated machinery and environmental issues with coal waste. And although CWLP may be eligible for certain Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) grants, creating the renewable capacity will also require significant planning.

But there is also a human element to CWLP. The three units recommended for retirement employ a large number of workers directly, and supports the coal mines and trucking companies that keep the units fueled. Even if this move is the right one for CWLP and the city as a whole, many people stand to lose their current employment. The council acknowledged that they will have to find a way to transition these workers to other jobs either in the utility or in the private sector. They cannot simply be abandoned with no plan.

In the mean time, the public comment period for the report is now open. The public is invited to comment either by email to IRP@cwlp.com or by mail to CWLP General Office, 4th Floor, Attention IRP, 800 East Monroe St, Springfield IL, 62757. There will also be an open house May 20th at Lincoln Library from 5:00 to 7:00 PM.

To learn more about the IRP, you can visit CWLP’s website, or watch the live presentation in the player above.

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