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Watertown Golf Club not part of Parks and Recreation review for city reimbursements

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The Watertown City Council this year has focused on reimbursement policies after learningthat its Parks and Recreation Department for nearly a decade failed to collect tens of thousands of dollars in fees followingconcerts, sporting events and other activities at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.

But the 66 acres at Thompson Park leased by the Watertown Golf Club is not part of that review. That’s because the Watertown Golf Club signed a 20-year lease agreement for the nine holes on the golf course’s eastern side six years ago.

The agreement is not being reviewed, though the city made a series of fee changes, brought in new parks department staff and established a variety of new policies and procedures that affect other venues.

The golf club has used the 66 acres — holes seven through 15 — since it expanded from nine to 18 holes during the early 1960s.

In 2006, the city and the Watertown Golf Club extended the lease through 2029, with the organization making annual payments starting at $8,668 until 2014 and gradually increasing to $10,768 during the last four years of the agreement. The previous agreement would have expired in December 2009.

P.J. Simao, owner of Ives Hill Country Club, questioned the lease agreement six years ago and still wants to know how the city ended up agreeing to such a lengthy extension. He also wondered whether former Mayor Joseph M. Butler’s involvement in the negotiations as president of the golf club may have influenced its outcome.

“No appraiser in town could justify that amount they pay for the lease,” Mr. Simao said.

Watertown Golf Club officials deny the organization received any favoritism, insisting it pays its fair share to the city.

The club pays taxes on both its land and the city’s portion, said club President James J. Valianos. It paid $8,223.56 in city, Jefferson County and Watertown City School District taxes in 2012 for nine holes the club owns, and $5,585.81 for the city-owned portion of the golf course. The club also paid $21,000 in city water bills for the entire 18-hole course, said club Assistant Treasurer James A. Leana.

A public course with about 200 members, the club is made up of about 30 stockholders. It formed in 1926. The club also built and owns the clubhouse, pro shop and maintenance building on its 57 acres on the other half of the course.

In 1966, the club signed the original lease with the city to increase the course to 18 holes. Club officials also pointed out that the city did not lend any financial support for the project to develop the 66 acres. The Watertown Golf Club invested the money to add the city-owned nine holes on its own, Mr. Valianos said.

Since then, the club also has made numerous improvements to both the nine holes it owns and the city’s portion, Mr. Butler said. The club renovated and expanded the clubhouse, upgraded the men’s locker room, added equipment and reconfigured some of the course’s holes.

All those improvements were paid for by the golf club, even those projects on the city-owned land, Mr. Butler said. The club also pays its golf pro, its greenskeepers and the Black River Valley Club to manage the clubhouse, he said.

“That land would still be undeveloped today,” Mr. Butler said.

While the golf course operates on city-owned land, the golf club has no direct connection to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. It only runs a summer golf program for youths.

Recently, City Attorney Robert J. Slye defended the 20-year agreement, contending it was “beneficial” to city residents because it provides a popular recreational activity.

No one else would want to lease the property, Mr. Slye said. The land’s use is limited to a golf course because it’s part of a municipal park and would take an act of the state Legislature to change it for another purpose, he said.

“They’re really the only ones that would lease it,” Mr. Slye said. “You wouldn’t want to lease half the holes to somebody else.”

As for the way the deal was devised in 2006, former City Manager Mary M. Corriveau handled negotiations with the Watertown Golf Club and then brought the agreement to the City Council for approval, Mr. Slye recalled.

When it came up in 2006, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham and Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith voted against the lease agreement, proposing the city sell its nine holes to the Watertown Golf Club. But golf club officials said then they were in no position to buy the property, saying they were $140,000 in debt.

Mr. Valianos said the golf club remains in debt and had to take out a $250,000 loan from the Watertown Savings Bank last year to refinance its mortgage, so it has no interest in purchasing the city’s nine holes.

“It’s something that we could not do for years,” said Mr. Butler, who also is a club stockholder.

Mr. Smith no longer advocates selling the land to the golf club, saying he understands it will remain in the city’s hands for years to come. Mr. Graham declined to comment, saying he did not recall the debate over the lease and what’s included in its terms.

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