By DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporter

Los Angeles is not exactly known for fiscal responsibility when it comes to government projects. But there is one area where local government has made some smart decisions: the running of golf courses.

That was the conclusion of a recent study by the Reason Public Policy Institute, which said that L.A. County has become one of the nation's leaders in golf-course privatization by contracting out the operation of all 17 of its public courses.

As a result of privatization, the study said, most courses enjoyed increased revenues, lower costs and better upkeep.

At the county's Mountain Meadow course in Pomona, for example, annual revenues went from $569,233 before the course was privatized in 1989, to $708,704 in the first year it was privately operated, to about $1.4 million annually over the last few years.

"L.A. was one of the pioneers because they had some of the earliest contracts with (private operator) American Golf," said Lisa Snell, a policy analyst who authored "Getting Greens in the Black: Golf-Course Privatization Trends and Practices" for Reason, which advocates the privatization of many government services.

Along with more money has come better-maintained courses even though golfers aren't necessarily paying more to play than they were before. Because most municipalities continue to set greens fees even after privatization (L.A. County courses charge $20 on weekdays and $25 on weekends for an 18-hole round), private operators must improve course conditions to attract more golfers.

In fact, courses are often privatized with the goal of improving conditions, Snell said, because many municipalities are too cash-strapped to invest in golf-course maintenance and upgrades.

"If a golf course wants to attract tournaments and attract players, in order to upgrade the facilities they almost have to privatize," she said.

Steve Duron, administrator of golf operations for the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation, agreed that the county's golf courses have seen major improvements both in upkeep and revenues since privatization began in 1982.

"Basically, in the (early) '80s we were losing money operating golf courses," Duron said. "As a matter of fact, we had an offer from a private management firm at the time that they would run all of our golf courses for a million bucks (in rent paid to the county), simply because we were losing money."

The county didn't accept that offer today it's making considerably more than $1 million a year from its courses. But it did start privatizing its golf courses, a process that ran through 1994, when the operation of the county's 17th and final course was contracted out.

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