Santa Rosa's Bennett Valley golf course has 18 holes — and one big crater in the city's balance sheet.

Despite being one of the busiest in the region, the city-owned golf course is hemorrhaging money, with losses exceeding $200,000 in each of the past four years. A $262,000 loss is forecast for 2013-14, effectively draining a reserve fund that exceeded $1.1 million five years ago.

When the reserves are gone, taxpayers will be on the hook for any losses.

On the golf course, it's proper etiquette to warn other players of an errant shot headed their way.

Here you go: Fore!

But the city needs to do more than that, especially when the grass at other local parks has been left to turn a crispy brown because of budget issues.

So far, fingers are mostly pointing at Marc Richardson, the city parks director who abruptly retired shortly before being fined by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for a conflict of interest and for failing to disclose gifts, including free golf, from the private operator of the golf course.

In 2009, Richardson negotiated a 10-year management contract with friendly terms for Bob Borowicz, the course operator. Two years later, Richardson recommended a reduction in green fees, the city's primary source of revenue from the golf course.

The appearance alone is disgraceful.

But as convenient as it may be to lay the blame on an ex-employee who ran afoul of state law, that won't address the continuing financial struggles at the golf course. Moreover, his actions were affirmed by the City Council, presumably after being vetted by other city administrators.

The biggest financial burden isn't the management contract. It's debt. In 2005, the City Council decided to borrow $5.6 million for a new clubhouse and pro shop that are extravagant by municipal golf course standards. They opened in 2007.

To help cover cost overruns, the council agreed to divert $860,000 from park development fees — money that's supposed to be repaid with interest from golf course revenue.

Altogether, debt service for the new facilities runs about $500,000 a year.

The city was counting on attracting more golfers to cover that cost. But when the recession hit, golf became an extravagance that many players could no longer afford. The number of rounds played each year at Bennett Valley fell from 83,000 to 67,000. It has climbed back to about 70,000.

The city can't walk away from its debts as easily as thrifty golfers can find a new pastime. Some fees have been increased but not enough to stanch the flow of red ink.

Complicating matters further, an outside consultant recently concluded that the golf course is due for "a major overhaul," which could cost $5 million.

What's next is obvious: More fee hikes.

To his credit, Borowicz says he expects to renegotiate his management contract to try to improve the bottom line. Meanwhile, golfers say other local courses are offering aggressive promotion to draw players away from Bennett Valley.

The city is in the deep rough, without a lot of good options. But officials should be guided by one principle: The golf course, which once turned regular profits, must pay for itself.

Watch the committee hearing

A bill that would streamline environmental review for housing in Santa Rosa got mixed reviews at its first committee hearing Wednesday. To watch the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality hearing, click here.