1999: Benefits help muni courses compete


Municipal courses might not have the deep pockets of their private and resort course competition, but that does not mean city-owned operations can’t be competitive when it comes to paying their maintenance staffs.

One of the main reasons municipal operations can be competitive is excellent benefits packages. At least that is the experience of Ann Weaver, golf manager for the city of Sacramento, Calif.

In Sacramento, all full-time golf employees have retirement plans, paid sick leave, paid vacation, night differential pay (working after 6 p.m.), overtime pay (nonsalaried staff only), full medical insurance, free safety equipment and tuition reimbursement. The benefits are one reason Weaver said she has no problem attracting full timers to the northern California city.

“Our salaries and benefits are significantly above industry standards,” said Weaver, who oversees six courses and a staff of nearly 100. “We’re paying our assistants what a lot of superintendents are making, so we have no problem.”

Even Weaver’s front-line hourly employees, such as mechanics and greenkeepers, as the crew members are known in Sacramento, get full benefits. Their hourly rate: $16.32 for greenkeepers and $17.49 for mechanics.

“Most people aren’t paying what we pay,” said Weaver, whose city is competitive in hourly wages in part because of the state’s high cost of living. “I don’t know any other golf course that offers retirement for front-line employees. I think we’re seeing more and more get medical coverage. It’s more commonplace for superintendents, but not assistants and others.”

According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s 1998 Compensation and Benefits Report, 50 percent of the superintendents nationwide were provided health insurance and 63 percent had it for their families. The numbers were similar for dental insurance (46 percent) and pension or retirement plans (49 percent).

Mark Woodward, parks and recreation administrator for the city of Mesa, Ariz., acknowledges his municipal operation cannot compete when it comes to salary but he also believes his benefits package is a plus.

“Obviously a lot of superintendents make more than I do,” said Woodward, who oversees two 18-hole courses, two tennis centers, a cemetery and two spring training baseball facilities for the Chicago Cubs. “We are tied into the municipal pay structure. It’s a fact of life. To be honest, it takes a little to accept. We may not be comparable (to) other jurisdictions (in salaries), but there are other benefits that help balance everything out.

“We have an excellent benefits package, better than most privates.”

Similar to Sacramento, Woodward’s benefits package includes medical, vision, dental, retirement plans and life insurance.

Furthermore, Woodward’s hourly rates for his front-line maintenance employees are very competitive. A mechanic, for example, starts at $14.79 per hour in Mesa and can earn as much as $18-$19.

“Our maintenance guys make more than most parts of the country,” said Woodward, who has been with the city for 25 years, the past 21 years as a golf course administrator.

The salary comparison between private clubs, resorts and municipal facilities shows disparities. Consider the following results from a 1998 survey by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America:

• The average salary for a superintendent at a private course was $62,171.

• Salary at a resort was $55,373.

• Salary at a municipal course was $44,742 – 39 percent less than the private course and 24 percent less than the resort.

One unique facet of municipal operations is union representation. That structure poses a particular problem for Doug Jones, course superintendent for the city of Grand Junction, Colo.

“If I want to let somebody go, there are so many steps to go through,” he said. “You have counseling, a letter of reprimand, there may be a reduction of salary. . . . By the time you’re through with all these steps, it could be a year.”

Weaver, on the other hand, has had a “very positive” experience with her union. Three years ago, she helped the city save $308,000 a year by restructuring the maintenance contracts with the full cooperation of the union, even if it meant converting eight full-time positions to part-time positions.

Woodward said the perception that municipals are not as competitive in compensating their employees has started to fade in the past few years. That explains why he really hasn’t had any problem attracting top employees.

“If you really look at the big picture, add the benefits package, it’s a pretty good deal,” said Woodward, whose superintendents top out at nearly $51,000 in five to six years. “We just hired a young guy with a family and things like life insurance, those things matter.

“When you add the benefits on top of his salary, he’s doing all right. It’s not higher than other places in our area, but I try to get superintendents to look at the big picture.”

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