Each city councilman said they wanted something done about the Iron Eagle golf course when they met Thursday to vote on the new city budget, but the members stopped short of pulling the plug on the course.
The council discussed the budget for an hour, then approved it on a split vote, 5-3.
Councilmen Ty Lucas, Ed Rieker and Jim Carman voted no. Councilmen Jim Nisley, Glenn Petersen, Andrew Lee, Lawrence Ostendorf and Jim Backenstose voted yes.
Lucas and Carman said they don’t want the city to continue to fund Iron Eagle. Rieker said he wanted more money for street repairs.
Lucas continued to strive to get a public vote on Iron Eagle. He said the city has kicked the can down the road far too long, stirring up a lot of public mistrust and negativity to the detriment of other projects.
Carman agreed to an extent. He said a public vote is a worthy option, but the council should exercise Plan A and simply cut funds for the course.
“I think there is future for golf out there,” Carman said. “Perhaps not the kind we are used to. We might make it 9 holes instead of 18 and let the frogs have the low ground. That would please the developer and please lot of our citizens, if we can make that happen. First, we need to stop tax funding of Iron Eagle, and we could do that right here.”
Carman’s suggestion met mixed reviews.
The new budget contains a 2.9% increase in expenditures, mostly due to a 2% wage increase for employees plus higher costs for health insurance.
The tax levy, however, will remain the same. This year, there is a relatively small 1.2% increase in property valuations, so property owners will not have much of a tax increase from the city.
The school budget is also essentially flat. The county, however, is another thing.
Lincoln County is contemplating a 12% spending increase, mostly for roads. The county will hold a budget hearing at 10 a.m. Monday in the county commissioners room at the east end of the courthouse.
The North Platte school board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday to adopt the school budget, which is also virtually property tax-neutral.
North Platte city administrator Jim Hawks said the city’s tax levy has been unchanged since 2016-17. He thanked city department heads for being fiscally prudent and mindful of taxpayers.
Discussion of the hottest issue in town, Iron Eagle and future development, dominated the meeting.
Councilman Jim Nisley supports Iron Eagle, but said the course should be prohibited from undercutting the prices of privately owned courses.
Nisley noted that private courses pay property taxes but Iron Eagle does not. He said Iron Eagle appears to charge about the same fees as private courses, but then gives members sizeable discounts, which is unfair.
Ed Rieker voiced concerns that the city is spending too much on recreation, public transit and the library and not enough on streets.
He wanted the council to dig deeper.
“I would like to see us as a council, with support of the mayor and city administrator, form a committee to discuss how to shrink some budgets and increase the basic functions of government,” he said. “Streets seem to be getting short shrift.”
“Certainly my constituents would agree that streets are badly in need of repair, some to the point of replacement, instead of repair,” said Rieker, who represents the north side.
Lee was quick to speak up for the library. He said libraries help college students, home schooled students and seniors with taxes, besides providing books for the general public. He said kids learn to read at the library, work with leggos and develop critical thinking at creation stations, among other things.
“Libraries are not designed to make any money,” he said. “Our library is in line nationally with what other libraries cost cities and counties.”
Regarding the North Platte Rec Center, Lee said its mission is to earn about half of its expenses, which it does. He said the Rec Center and parks provide affordable places for kids to play and socialize, which helps them be more productive.
Lee said he is trying to find a solution to Iron Eagle too, mostly because of the “political toxicity” that the course has caused. He said the toxicity is more of a problem than the dangers of flooding. He suggested putting out an official request for proposals to see if private business would want to lease or buy the course.
“If we can find a partner, that’s our fiduciary responsibility,” he said.
Lee also said if the city abandons Iron Eagle, it would still have to be mowed, so it wouldn’t be an eyesore, which could cost about as much as subsidizing the course.
Lucas is passionate about putting the golf course issue to a public vote, and making a decision, whatever it will be.
He said the costs of negativity and distrust of city government are horrible.
Lucas has tried to get the council agenda to include discussion of a public vote on Iron Eagle, Mayor Dwight Livingston has blocked his effort. He said Livingston has ignored the request.
Lucas said he would only vote for the budget if the mayor makes a commitment to put the topic on the council agenda within two months.
“I cannot in good faith vote for the budget without the council having a venue to discuss a vote of the public,” he said.
Livingston said he hasn’t ignored anyone. He said he’d met with Lucas and other council members to discuss the topic and the pending development by Chief Industries.
“You knew what was going on and why I did not bring it forward,” Livingston told Lucas. “And, you knew you did not have the votes (a majority.)
Mayor Livingston did not respond to Lucas’ request to make it an agenda item, despite repeated requests from Lucas.
Livingston said he’s known for eight months that Chief Development was interested in building near the course, but could not talk about it due to confidentiality agreements. He said the Chief developments will be good for North Platte.
“We may have an opportunity to bring a $40 million project to North Platte, and we need that, we truly need that,” Livingston said.
Livingston also said he has also been talking to “an individual who is interested in taking the course over,” but it is difficult to encourage that if the city is continually slamming the golf course.
“How is it going to be successful, if they thought it would close every year?” he asked.
He said the council should find solutions to negative finances of Iron Eagle, “instead of bickering about it every year at budget time.”
Livingston said he truly believes the city and council can find a solution and keep Iron Eagle operating.
Nisley wants the Chase family to sign a quit claim deed for the course, a first step before a vote would be held. He also said closing Iron Eagle would not solve the basic problems of the golf industry — more courses then members.
Nevertheless, he said the council should start taking concrete action, “to let the public know we are doing something.”
“Give us a chance to work it out,” he said. “We’re not even one year away from paying the debt off. The issue of a vote is an aggravation. The public has a right to complain and we’ve heard a lot about this. I don’t want to keep it forever, that’s not the deal. I want to work out a solution for North Platte.”
Nisley also stuck up for city recreation, the library and public transit. He told Rieker that providing those services is an essential function of the city to help people with lower incomes.
Jim Backenstose is a former Iron Eagle member. Bankenstose predicted that Indian Meadows golf course would close in a year or two, and if River’s Edge can’t make it financially, the city could be down to one golf course. He also said the Lake Maloney golf course is pretty much full.
Backenstose said putting the issue to a vote could open a Pandora’s box of more such requests. He said another concerned group might ask to put funding of the library or the Rec Center to a vote, too.
Ty Lucas, a member at the Lake golf course, said his impression is that the lake course is struggling but finding ways to make ends meet. He noted that private courses are limited in how much they can charge because of the competition from the city.
Lucas again called for the voters to be heard, to make the long-range decision. He said closing the course, and continuing to fund it, both could have bad consequences, both have pros and cons.
“This is why we need to get this to the voters,” he said. “They might want to keep it. Then we would know what to do.”
“This council keeps thinking we have more information than the public,” Lucas said. “We need to rebuild trust in government. The mayor, Jim Hawks and city get way more criticism than they deserve (on all issues.)”
After about an hour, a councilman called for a vote, which was 5-3.