The Outstater: Golfing with the Government

September 26, 2016

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE government-can-work-magic stories — a parks department repurposes an old municipal dump into a new golf course. Shazam! Happy citizens playing cheap golf, manicured greens and fairways instead of smelly sludge and trash.

The problem, government being government, is that a new municipal golf course is run, well, like an old municipal dump. Unaccountability and the resulting oversights and miscalculations end up costing somebody — taxpayers — a lot of money.

Now, 22 years later, as toxins leech into the surrounding watershed, teed-off residents of a southeast Indianapolis neighborhood are asking a question: If turning the old Jullietta Landfill into Whispering Hills Golf Course was such a great idea, why was no private developer interested? The answer, as is often the case, was that the project could only appear “profitable” with political bookkeeping.

Ryan Cummins, an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a former appropriations chairman for the Terre Haute Common Council, has studied such civic disasters statewide for years. This one follows a pattern seen in projects ranging from government-financed apartment buildings to convention centers to sports stadiums to recreation facilities to parking garages.

“There is a reason nobody else was interested, and long-term evaluation coupled with due diligence provides the answer,” he says. “The incentives to adhere to these practices are weak in government because the pain, in terms of monetary costs for remediation, won’t be born by the folks running the golf course. They’ll still get their paychecks, their benefits and their pension.”

The bureacracy nonetheless has had to bone up on property laws that have guided private-sector development for 600 years, common principles that form the basis of the title-insurance industry: “Unfortunately, it’s a side effect of owning a lot of land,” Parks Director Linda Broadfoot seemed to lecture readers of the Indianapolis Star, “Sometimes the land has a history that predates you that has to be dealt with.”

Typical of the unaccountability is that no one is sure how the city got the dump declared “safe” for golf in the first place, a misjudgment that will cost taxpayers an estimated $6 million, one-fifth of the Parks and Recreation annual budget. That kind of number by itself would have deterred a private investor, and the site’s problems were generally known. The Star reports that regulators for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management warned a city consultant in 1988 that the pollution there was extensive.

The city, though, seeing its “profits” in ribbon cuttings and public-relations triumphs, was undeterred. Regulations and safety rules that might have stopped a private developer were apparently brushed aside for municipal bureaucrats and planners.

That, Cummins says, is the closing irony: If local government hadn’t been so intent on subsidizing golf all those years, it might have addressed the pollution and health concerns created by the dump. ”Maybe there are good, valid, real-life reasons why government should be limited to the protection of life, liberty and property and not take on the responsibility of providing cheap golf,” he concludes.

That will require an understanding in city halls throughout Indiana of the historic value of the free and voluntary exchanges of the market. It is there where incentives truly align with the wants and needs of a constituency — regardless of race, gender, slice, hook or handicap.

— Craig Ladwig


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