Golf courses contracts under state scrutiny
Updated: Friday, November 8 2013, 07:51 AM EST
The New York Comptroller is investigating whether Monroe County taxpayers are losing out on millions of dollars of contracted services at three golf courses run by a private company.
"As a taxpayer you have to look at it and say 'I've paid for something, why am I not getting it?'" says Frank Choromankis, a golfer who has become a citizen watchdog.
At Durand Eastman Golf Course, golfers battle more than the sand traps. In places the fairway looks far worse than the rough. Some greens are spotty with disease.
The 18th fairway is dotted with craters.
"These holes are deep enough that if I stepped into them they would go above my ankles," said Eddie Gartz. He walks the course every day and has spent three years trying to find answers for his concerns.
He also plays the courses at Churchville and Genesee Valley and has documented similar problems. Problems which he says are getting worse.
"This is serious stuff," he said. "This is hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of damage that will have to be repaired someday."
13WHAM News has spent three months pouring over hundreds of pages of documents and contracts dating back to 1997. Our goal was to follow the money and find out who is looking out for taxpayer interests.
Since 1997, control and maintenance of the taxpayer-owned courses has been contracted out to a private company owned by Jack Tindale.
"I don't think they're following the maintenance standards that were set up in the contract," said former grounds keeper Jimmy Johnson. "It's pretty obvious to me."
Johnson learned grounds keeping from his father who ran all three courses when they were under the control of Monroe County. Johnson rose to the ranks of Superintendent at Churchville and when the contract went private, he signed on with the Tindale operation.
"I know the corners he was cutting because he didn't have the help," said Johnson, who is now retired. "In my professional opinion all of the courses are suffering from years of neglect." He adds, "Taxpayers didn't get what they (contracted) for and they'll have to pay (again) to fix it."
13WHAM News obtained the contracts approved first in 1997 and extended every five years afterward. They contain six pages of "regular" maintenance requirements including mowing, seeding, applying fertilizers, and pest and weed control.
The contract spells out that golfers should have access to a pro shop at each course and a restaurant.
Yet at Churchville, the pro shop is in the old restaurant. Only packaged snacks are available. Before the restaurant there was shut down, it struggled under Tindale.
Inspection records from the Monroe County Health Department cite refrigeration and sanitation issues including "food contaminated by rodent droppings." It failed the 2002 inspection and two additional re-inspections and re-opened only after managers were forced to get food safety training.
On several trips to Durand, 13WHAM News found the hot dog stand wasn't always open. But we did find a dog there. A very friendly bulldog appeared to have moved right in. He was able to come and go through a door that was propped open and his leash stopped just short of the human food.
Outside he had his own food and water dish and a swimming pool. We showed the photos to Parks Director Larry Staub.
"I am not aware of this and I will definitely have a conversation with our vendor over there," said Staub.
Staub sat down with us to look at the contracts.
He says bottom line: the arrangement benefits taxpayers.
"We get 19.5 percent of greens fees right off the top and we get five percent of all other sales right off the top," he said.
Yet critics see it another way. Monroe County taxpayers are giving up 80.5 Percent of greens fees and 95 percent of other sales as payment for everything that is spelled out in the 40 page contract. Each item in it has a value.
"They've paid for everything in the contract, unfortunately they're not getting everything in the contract," said Frank Choromanksis. He says the cost of those items adds up.
Both Choromanksis and Gartz are citizen watchdogs. They helped us pour over hundreds of pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Law.
For starters, they say taxpayers have been cheated out of half a million dollars of permanent upgrades to the courses because the operator passed off regular maintenance as capital improvements.
"He can't have it both ways. It can't be a capital improvement and a maintenance item," says Choromanksis.
The idea that grass seed is not a capital improvement invoked the ire Parks Director Larry Staub.
"They say grass seed - ah ha!" he said. "Well take a little closer look at that. That's your green! That's your turf!"
And what about the provisions for the restaurant and pro shops? Staub said "You enforce what you think are the important things," adding "We have evolved the contract by mutual agreement."
"The county has entered into an agreement with a private individual who should be held accountable," said retired groundskeeper Jimmy Johnson. "I blame the county as much as I blame him."
Critics argue together these short cuts add up to a big short change for taxpayers and ultimately contribute to a larger question of whether Monroe County is exercising proper oversight. 13Wham News has learned those issues are at the heart of an audit underway by the New York Comptroller's Office.
Parks Director Larry Staub says he cannot comment on any potential audit. The results are expected to be released early next year.
Eddie Gartz met with auditors in October. "We the taxpayer need to get to the bottom of this," he said. "Something's wrong here."