By Alfredo Santana
MONTEBELLO — A divided City Council has approved the use of $5 million allocated by the federal government to provide relief for income or business losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to fund an ongoing renovation of the municipal golf course.
The 3-2 vote was recorded Oct. 12 with the support of Mayor Kimberly Ann Cobos-Cawthorne and council members Salvador Melendez and Angie Jimenez.
Council members Scarlet Peralta and David Torres voted against the plan.
The measure also extended a $5.1 million contract to the company Los Angeles Engineering for construction of underground utilities, rough grading and laying pavement and concrete flatwork at the golf course.
The Montebello Municipal Golf Course closed on Sept. 26 for a $20.3 million renovation to convert the existing 18-hole course into a 9-hole field plus a smaller one with 6 holes, paid in part with the sale of $15.3 million bonds also approved as part of the funding package.
Peralta said that before the item was recommended for passage by the Public Works Department, the City Council did not know that the municipal bonds would not cover the entire golf course bill.
She told the council the $16.59 million the city received under the American Rescue Plan should be spent on programs that benefit residents directly, in sewage and infrastructure works, and in information technology networks that include databases and digital safeguards against growing threats like malware and hackers.
“As a council, I don’t think we should allocate COVID relief funds to fill that gap,” Peralta said. “I understand that the flexibility of the COVID relief funds has changed and funds are being allowed to cover these items, but at the end of the day, as a council we have the responsibility to ensure these funds go toward immediate relief as we’ve done with sewage and IT infrastructure.”
A document prepared by Public Works Director James Enriquez and approved by City Manager Rene Bobadilla cited federal guidelines issued in April allow cities to use American Rescue Plan money to make up for revenue losses booked during the pandemic.
The document indicates that a portion of the coronavirus relief funds had been transferred to the general fund “to mediate the lost revenue from the pandemic,” and the rest of American Rescue Plan resources would pay for the citywide “information technology backbone and upgrade project.”
Torres said that a year ago the City Council discussed American Rescue Plan funds’ allocations for $6.9 million to upgrade and replace aging vehicular fleets, $5.6 million for IT infrastructure and software, and $4.2 million for sewer maintenance and upgrades.
“The funds were designed and allocated to address the effects of coronavirus in the most significant ways,” Torres said in reference to the $5 million being shifted. “I’m excited for the new golf campus. I believe we should move it along quickly, but this is a step I cannot in good conscience approve.”
Although he acknowledged the flaws involved in gathering foolproof information from Facebook posts, Torres said that 160 respondents to a question of how American Rescue Plan funds should be invested indicated it should address disparities in education following COVID-19 lockdowns and infections, aid for small businesses and on housing and neighborhoods.
Torres pushed to file the measure so city management could find alternate sources to pay for the budget gap, but his motion was superseded by the proposal as it was passed.
Mayor Cobos-Cawthorne said that in September 2021 the council voted unanimously to allocate American Rescue Plan funds to cover the golf course renovation.
None of the three council members backing the measure made comments before casting their votes.
Furthermore, the construction measure bundled a $1.28 million payment to AIM Consulting Services for managing planning, programming and design of the project’s construction and inspections, and a “reimbursement payment” for $494,705 to Trend Sports LLC for developing costs on a pre-designed concept.
Most of the upgrades will be conducted on the club’s drives abutting Via Campo, a street that runs parallel to the Pomona (60) Freeway at the northern boundary of the golf course.
Montebello touted the renovation project as “a new and modern first-class championship golf course complex that will complement the adjacent TopGolf facility and existing hotels and Quiet Cannon event center.”
The city also owns two hotels inside the golf club’s perimeter, currently being operated by Hilton Hotels & Resorts under the name of Hilton Montebello Garden Inn, and Home 2 Suite by Hilton.
Public documents indicate that the renovation project would impact 72.5 acres of the 118-acre golf course and will include a new clubhouse with installation of a green complex, and the 6-hole drive would turn into a 10-hole course at night.
The project’s second of three construction phases would include golf course construction with finished grading, and upgrades on tee boxes, fairways, greens and sand traps, turf and landscaping with a price tag of $8 million.
Phase three would include clubhouse construction, budgeted at nearly $2.47 million. The entire project is expected to finish in November 2023.
Golf course renovations arrive in light of recommendations made to improve the sluggish operations following two audits from the California state auditor’s office that concluded Montebello had to take steps to make the site self-sufficient and consider alternative uses for the land.
The state auditor’s office identified the golf course as a financial risk property the city has operated for decades that required historical support from the general fund to survive.
In 2019, a change of the site’s manager operator and a new maintenance deal helped improve the golf course’s financial picture from $751,000 in subsidies accounted in fiscal year 2019-2020 to about $471,000 in 2020-2021.
Also, the City Council approved in 2021 a measure to build an entertainment center and a driving range on golf course grounds to be leased at increased yearly payments by selling up to $50 million in bonds to mature in different stages over a period of 20 years.
According to the state auditor’s office, rent revenues and sales taxes would reverse annual golf club deficits, estimated at nearly $2 million, and help pay them back to the general fund by 2030.