Golf course bonds OK'd by council

January 04, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The Howard County Council voted last night to guarantee $10.7 million in revenue bonds that the county would need in March to build an 18-hole regulation golf course near Interstate 95 and Route 100.

The 4-1 vote does not guarantee that the course will be built, but moves the county further in that direction. Last night's vote was the first of three actions needed from the council to make the course a reality.

The second vote, scheduled for Feb. 6, would authorize the sale of $10.7 million in revenue bonds in early March. The third vote, in early March, would approve whatever interest rate was negotiated.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker hopes to open the first nine holes of the course July 1, 1996, and the remainder of the course May 1, 1997.

By guaranteeing the interest on the bonds, the county would get a more attractive interest rate than without the guarantee, Mr. Ecker's financial advisers told the council last month.

Councilman Darrel Drown, a 1st District Republican, emphasized that point again last night. "This [guarantee] saves us hundreds of thousands of dollars" in annual interest payments, he said.

"It was a difficult decision" to guarantee the interest on the bonds, Mr. Drown said, but he added that he is convinced that the course would pay for itself through golfing fees.

"This is not going to cost us money," Mr. Drown said.

Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, was a little more cautious.

"Sometimes you make a mistake in accepting things that are given to you," Mr. Feaga said, noting that the 200 acres of mostly sand and gravel on which the course would be built was given to the county as part of an agreement with a developer.

"The land is very, very poor," Mr. Feaga said, "and a lot of the total acreage would have been open space anyway."

Still, he said the site is probably the best in the eastern county for attracting golfers, and probably would draw the 52,000 rounds needed annually to make the course self-supporting.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a 2nd District Democrat, voted against the guarantee, saying he supported the construction of the course but not the way it would be financed. He objected that the $10.7 million cost would include $7.49 million to build the course and $3.21 million to pay the principal and interest for the first two years on the 20-year revenue bonds that would finance the project.

The $3.21 million cushion is needed, Mr. Ecker's financial advisers say, to cover revenue shortfalls the first two years. After that, they say, the course would be fully self-supporting.

Mr. Gray questioned how borrowing $3.21 million to pay the first two years' interest would save money. "I wish someone would show me," he said.

He compared the transaction to a bank loan in which a customer needs $4,000 but borrows an extra $2,000 to make the interest payments.

Mr. Gray objected to a $300,000 management fee he said the county will be paying a private company.

He said the management agreement should be amended to say that the county will share in the profits once the course becomes profitable.

The east Columbia councilman also lamented that once the council authorized the bonds and approved the interest rate, it would not have any more say.

"We should be concerned about that," Mr. Gray said. "There should be a subsequent role for the council."

He wants the county to set up a quasi-public golf corporation similar to the Economic Development Authority and require the corporation to seek council approval for annual appropriations.

Council members said they plan to press their concerns further at a Jan. 11 meeting with Mr. Ecker's representatives. A public hearing on the administration's bond request will be held Jan. 17.

In other action last night, the council voted unanimously to postpone action on a bill intended to make the county's zoning procedures conform to a charter amendment approved by voters in the November election.

Writers of the amendment that changes the way the county does comprehensive rezoning sought the delay at a public hearing on the bill last month, saying the bill does not accomplish what their amendment intended.

Supporters of the charter amendment "said we were trying to ram this [bill] down their throats," Mr. Drown said after last night's meeting.

"We want those people to meet with Barbara [Cook, the county solicitor] so that we can all sit down and understand the procedures" for implementing the amendment.

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