Like a worried golfer reaching for a trusted pitching wedge to get him out of trouble, Timberlane Estates is the second West Jefferson subdivision in two years to turn to a new tax as a way to help get its ailing golf course out of the rough.
But the proposed special assessment on the May 4 ballot has drawn criticism from some residents of the 500-home Gretna community, who say a minority of property owners are trying to cram a bad idea down the throats of an unsuspecting majority.
Supporters of the assessment, which would levy up to $1,950 per taxable house each year for 10 years, say they are simply trying to contain a looming threat to property values when — not if, in their opinion — the Timberlane Golf & Country Club folds without the tax to bail it out.
And they argue that putting the idea up to a vote is a fair and straightforward way of doing it.
Options for use of the assessment, should it pass, range anywhere from helping the course maintain the greens and landscaping to buying it and putting it under new management.
Like many of its peers around the country, the Timberlane course has been dealing with declining play, membership and revenue, and its shareholders sought approval from the board last year to declare bankruptcy.
Chip Rosen, the club's president, said its 275 members are down about 100 from five or six years ago. During the oil and gas boom of the 1970s, it had about 500 members.
The club and course are funded by membership fees of $270 per year; $80-per-month social memberships; daily single, group and tournament play; the driving ranges; and a percentage of revenue from Cafe Hope, which leases space there.
Rosen said annual operating costs are $1.3 million, which he described as "frugal" compared to the $1.75 million he would consider reasonable for a course like Timberlane.
The course is also saddled with two federal disaster loans it took out after Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, on which it still owes $1.3 million.
The pressures Timberlane faces are not unique. For several years, courses across the nation have grappled with declining revenue as fewer and fewer golfers play rounds at the oversupply of courses built in the 1990s and 2000s.
Those pressures — and damage from hurricanes — have already shuttered several other west bank courses, including Brechtel Park, Plantation Golf & Country Club, the course at the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station and Bayou Barriere in Belle Chasse. The last of those closed in 2017.
While Rosen said the national trends have stabilized somewhat, the competitive landscape locally has hurt Timberlane as other, richer clubs like Lakewood have spruced themselves up and English Turn has opened itself up more to people who aren't members.
Even something as basic as rainy weather, which he said has hurt all courses locally over the last two years, has an impact.
Rosen said the club has kept its membership and greens fees — it costs between $26 and $40 to play a round of golf there — stable during this period.
Faced with the same grim picture, nearby Stonebridge Country Club has already done something similar to what Timberlane is attempting. There, the effort to pass a 45-mill property tax on subdivision homeowners also had opponents who didn’t feel they would benefit, but it ended up passing in 2017 with 54 percent of the approximately 1,000 votes in favor.
In both cases, the vote to tax residents followed the creation of what is known as a neighborhood improvement and beautification district, which creates a board of directors with the ability to put a tax on the ballot.
For Timberlane, that marked the public debut of tensions between the initiative's supporters and detractors.
In December, members of the Timberlane Estates Improvement Association and a group it formed to look into options relative to the golf course received the Jefferson Parish Council’s approval to create the district that supporters said would allow the neighborhood to buy the property.
Pointing to the Colonial Country Club course in Harahan, whose redevelopment plans divided the community, Timberlane Association President John McGill said the taxing district would allow residents to control the fate of the course, whatever it is.
“The club is about to fail; that’s a fact,” said Brady Garrity, who had joined the golf club’s board a few months earlier only to discover its dire financial position. “The people that don’t want to believe that, they can choose to do that, but our group and a large portion of my neighbors do not want to sit idly by and hope … it all works out.”
Russell Hayes, the chairman of the homeowners association's study committee, told the council the subdivision's 500 homes have a combined assessed value of $146 million and could lose up to a third of that value if the course closes.
Opponents said property values are already declining due to mismanagement of the course, and that the idea of a taxing district was moving way too quickly and without the informed consent of all the neighbors, many of whom cannot afford to pay more taxes.
“Most of the people don’t even know this is going on,” said resident Ronda Sweet. “A lot of the neighborhood has not been informed.”
With only a quarter or a third of the residents being members of the golf club, resident Gail Heine asked, “Why should the whole neighborhood pay for a few who enjoy the golf course and country club?”
A month later, the issue blew up again when the Parish Council approved the request to put the special assessment on the ballot.
McGill said the improvement district's board felt the flat assessment, which would generate almost $1 million a year if levied at the maximum amount, was fairer to all property owners than a millage.
Opponents questioned whether golf club shareholders and board members such as McGill and Garrity should be pushing the effort to bail out the club.
McGill said an online survey polled more than half the residents and found they thought something needed to be done. He said he does not think there is any conflict with residents who are club members being involved in the process.
Resident Cardell Thomas, however, said mismanagement by the golf club and neighborhood association has been a fixture of Timberlane for years.
“Timberlane (golf course) is always crying broke. Members are leaving, and there’s a reason for that,” he said.
If the tax passes, “I’m going to be paying so that someone in Kenner can come over and play golf for $25,” he said. “I’m going to be paying that tax to allow that to happen, because … (the club) can’t be private because they couldn’t make the note unless they opened it up for everyone else.”
Garrity accused critics of overstating the opposition and questioned why they oppose allowing people a chance to vote.
“If the tax fails, then the neighborhood spoke, the country club closes and the property becomes vacant,” he said, adding that it then could fall into the hands of an outside developer.
“If that happens," he added, “the same people that are here trying to keep everyone from voting will try to stop development because change is bad.”
The Parish Council’s position, articulated by members Chris Roberts and Ricky Templet, whose district includes Timberlane, has been to let the neighborhood decide.
Councilman Paul Johnson told the opponents: “I understand where y’all are coming from. But y’all need to get out there and fight. (We’re) giving the citizens the right to vote, and the way to (defeat the tax) is to go out there and fight and vote against it.”