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What's the big deal? It's just a few rounds of golf.

That was the reaction from many readers last month when staff writer Kevin McCallum reported that the state Fair Political Practices Commission was levying fines against two former Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department officials who had failed to report years of freebies at the city-owned, privately operated Bennett Valley Golf Course.

This week, McCallum followed up with a story that clearly illustrates why it's a big deal.

Bennett Valley Golf Course has been losing money by the bucket over the past several years, depleting what was once a $1.1 million reserve fund down to a projected $18,000 by next July. And taxpayers will be on the hook for projected future deficits.

The report that identified those figures also says the contract for management of the city-owned course is tilted in favor of the private operator. While the city keeps the green fees (the price golfers pay to play), the operator receives 90 percent of all other revenues. That creates a conflict of interest for the operator to keep green fees low to attract more golfers, who spend their money on things such as the driving range, cart rentals and merchandise sales, the report says.

Consequently, the operator's revenue increased $188,000 during the years 2010-2012 while the city's share fell by $87,000, according to the report.

So, yeah, when the course operator gives thousands of dollars' worth of free rounds of golf to the top two managers of the department that oversees (and negotiates) his contract at the same time his operation is hemorrhaging cash, that's a big deal.

Let's be clear here: No government official should receive for free any goods or services that taxpayers have to pay for. The chief of city utilities shouldn't get a pass on his sewer or water bill. The community development director shouldn't get a free building permit. The manager negotiating garbage contracts shouldn't get free trash pickup. The list goes on and on.

But the perks received by Recreation and Parks officials Marc Richardson and Rich Hovden look especially bad in light of a report by an outside consultant that finds the golf course has veered deep into the financial rough and is showing no signs of being able to hack its way out.

The golf course has already diverted money from other park projects around the city, and is on course to suck even more funds from a Recreation and Parks budget that is so thin that the department recently has been asking for citizen volunteers to maintain some neighborhood parks.

Bennett Valley is a fine golf course. As McCallum reported, it is the most popular course in the region, known for its competitive rates, excellent maintenance and modern facilities.

But those facilities are part of the problem. A $10 million clubhouse and pro shop opened in 2007, and paying for the loan and bonds that financed that project costs the course $500,000 a year. Furthermore, the report states that continued good maintenance of the course will require irrigation improvements to the tune of $1.2 million as part of a "major overhaul" that could total $5 million.

That's money the city does not have. And even if it did have that kind of cash lying around, there are plenty of other park facilities around Santa Rosa that could put it to good use.

Somehow, Bennett Valley Golf Course has to stop the financial bleeding and find a way to make golf pay for itself in Santa Rosa. That means, certainly, that city officials are going to have to pay their own way around the course. It also means, probably, that all golfers are going to have to pay a little more to enjoy the 18 holes owned by the taxpayers in Bennett Valley.

That shouldn't be any big deal.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.