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Tax dollars fund simulator

| Wednesday, June 19, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Once-known for its brown greens, a leaky clubhouse and budget deficit, the privately run Schenley Park Golf Course now features some of the world's best golfing thanks to a $300,000 upgrade by city taxpayers.

The mayor and City Council teamed up to pay for three state-of-the-art golf simulators that create life-size computer images of Pebble Beach in California, St. Andrews in Scotland or some two dozen other courses around the world. The machines cost $117,000 and were one part of a larger taxpayer-funded upgrade at the Oakland course.

The city owns the grounds and equipment, but Carnegie Mellon University operates it under a lease agreement.

"I think I would have a great time going in one of those simulators, but I don't expect my neighbors to pay for it," said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Cranberry Township Republican and member of the Commonwealth Caucus, a lawmakers' group opposed to wasteful spending. "For every dollar spent in Pittsburgh on something that is not a legitimate expense, that's a dollar they will end up asking for from the state or the feds."

The public outlays come as Mayor Tom Murphy and council members say they want to improve the city's finances. Murphy created a task force to look at city spending to find new efficiencies and funding. At the end of last year, the city's debt totaled $871.1 million in principal and $568.3 million in interest. The city, which has more than 150 parks and playgrounds, this year budgeted $5.5 million for parks and recreation.

Marian Gumina of Banksville, a mother of two children who play ball in the city's baseball field in that neighborhood, said Tuesday she was irked to find out the city was spending so much on golf simulators.

What makes it worse, she said, is that the Banksville Athletic Association still is waiting for the city to build a public toilet at the baseball field, nearly a year after $16,000 was allocated for that purpose.

"Now how does that (golf simulators) benefit little children?" Gumina said. "They're getting a toy. We want a solution to a potential health problem. I'm pretty amazed at the wasteful spending when we have needs that I feel are more important. While somebody's getting fancy toys, we got a second Port a-john."

The mayor's spokesman referred questions about the golf simulators to Duane Ashley, director of Citiparks.

"There's nothing illegal about us spending money on our asset," Ashley said. "We're really concerned about keeping the golf course competitive."

In 1993, the city handed over control of the facility to Carnegie Mellon.

The school set up a nonprofit organization, the Schenley Golf Operating Corporation, to run the course and it has operated in the black, according to federal tax forms. The nonprofit had revenues topping $390,000 in 2000 — nearly $50,000 higher than expenses.

The lease agreement, which expires in 2007, states that any improvements will be borne by the nonprofit and paid off with excess revenues.

The group pays the city $1 a year to lease the 4,600-yard course. It remains exempt to property taxes, but it generates taxes on greens fees, rentals and food sales.

Even so, the golf course needed taxpayers' help to remain competitive with private sector courses, Ashley said.

Carnegie Mellon laid out a plan for renovating the golf course — including the simulators — and asked for the city's help with matching funds, he said. Other money has come from private foundations.

To use the simulators, players stand on artificial-turf mats to hit balls into a wall-sized screen showing a computer-generated picture of a golf course. As the ball hits the screen, a computer tracks its simulated path, distance, ball speed and launch angle.

Murphy signed the simulator contracts — one dated April 2001 and the other May 2001 — and his administration helped broker the taxpayer investments. The simulators were installed in the fall. City Council approved two allocations of funds worth a total of $300,000.

Councilman Bob O'Connor also defended the improvements, saying they are integral to the nonprofit's youth education program. He serves on the nonprofit's board and the golf course sits in his district.

The nonprofit is helping some 2,000 young people learn the game this year with free course passes and simulator time, said Bruce Stephen, executive director. Golf Digest recently ranked Schenley's youth program among the country's best.

The Schenley nonprofit uses money raised from adults using the simulators to fund the children's programs, Stephen said. It charges adults $25 an hour in the winter and $20 an hour in the summer to use the three simulators — comparable to the private sector.

Young people will get about 1,000 free hours in the simulators this year, Stephen said.

Before handing the course over to Carnegie Mellon, the city considered closing the facility because its greens were often brown and it was losing thousands of dollars, O'Connor said.

When questioned, several council members said they did not know the money would go for simulators — but rather just general improvements at the course.

In February, all eight council members backed the final $200,000 payment.

Council President Gene Ricciardi defended his vote, saying he went along on the condition that it would be the last time taxpayers are asked to pay for anything at the golf course.

Council member Barbara Burns said it probably should have gotten closer scrutiny this year, adding that "I must have been asleep" when it came up for a vote.

Taxpayers groups questioned how city lawmakers could defend spending any money on the simulators when Pittsburgh has so many needs such as street paving and recreation center improvements.

"I could think of 100 better ways to spend public money — in fact all the ways to spend public money would be better than that," said Jim Broussard, founder of Citizens Against Higher Taxes, a statewide watchdog group. "I don't see how anyone could say it's a legitimate function of government to spend money on golf simulators."

But the days of taxpayer-funded improvements at the golf course are probably over anyway with tight-budget days looming ahead, Ashley said.

The city's nonbinding "six-year capital improvement plan" calls for spending another $100,000 a year for the next three years.

"In all likelihood that's not happening," he said.

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