Duluth to close golf course, leave jobs unfilled, scale back roadwork as COVID-19 hits city finances
City tax revenues continue to slide as the local economy sputters.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson announced some of the spending cuts her administration is enacting, as the toll the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken on city finances continues to mount. Those spending adjustments will affect a wide public swath, including golfers, baseball fans, beach-goers, animal lovers and motorists.
During a Monday afternoon news conference, she explained that the city anticipates its tax collections will come in nearly $25 million shy of expectations. That shortfall represents more than a quarter of the city's $92.9 million general budget for 2020.
To adjust, Duluth's Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said the city has laid off 45 temporary, largely seasonal employees and enacted a hiring freeze, leaving the equivalent of 18 full-time positions unfilled.
Larson also announced the city will close Lester Park Golf Course — one of Duluth's two municipal courses — for the summer as a cost-cutting measure. While she acknowledged the golf course closure will come as a disappointment for many, she noted that it has consistently operated at an annual loss of around $150,000.
"Reducing 2020 golf operations from two golf courses to one is one of the best ways that we can preserve golf at all and manage a budget at the same time," Larson said. "So this is just one of the many announcements that we'll be making to try to preserve our general fund and also preserve essential services."
Additionally, she served notice that the Lake Superior Zoo, the Park Point Beach House and Wade Stadium will remain closed to the public until at least July 1. After that date, she said they may reopen if that can be done safely.
"These changes are designed to prevent disease transmission per federal and state guidelines, to preserve the city's financial capacity to maintain all of our essential services and preserve the possibility that Duluth residents may be able to enjoy some traditional summertime activities this year," Larson said.
"I'm not ready to cancel summer yet, and I don't think you are, either," she said.
Duluth's other municipal golf course — Enger Park — expects to open its driving range either Wednesday or Thursday, and the first 18 holes should be ready for play by Friday, said Larson, noting that local golfers typically need to wait until May.
Besides taking steps to protect the public health, Larson said the closures will save the city money. For instance, she noted that Duluth spends about $75,000 annually for lifeguards at Park Point.
Street repairs will take a hit, too, as much of the work was to be funded with a half-percent dedicated sales tax and sales are down with the economy. The 18 miles of road improvements the city originally planned to make this year has been reduced to 16.7 miles, but Larson noted that's still more work than in recent years, with 34 projects sprinkled across the city.
Larson predicted the city will need to continue to tighten its belt.
"This week, we will be having more internal conversations about what other kinds of cuts we need to make," she said, acknowledging: "We will have very difficult staffing decisions that will need to be made."
Larson said the city also will need draw from about $10 million in reserves it has set aside.
"As I told our team, 'If we don't use it for a pandemic when would you use it?" she said.
But Larson said, "We also need to be careful that we don't overspend from it," explaining that she doesn't want to harm the city's credit rating or badly deplete its rainy-day funds.
While Larson remains hopeful the city may receive federal or state assistance to help it through these difficult times, she said she's not counting on it.
"We can make a case, and I certainly hope that support will be there. But I am unwilling to rest on that hope. I just am unwilling to ignore a hemorrhage because there might be a Band-Aid two blocks away if you can walk there. I need to make the decisions we need to make to keep this city strong and solid," she said.