Military golf course’s mem­bers be­come its keep­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY IAN SHAPIRA

They’re mow­ing the grass, run­ning the golf shack and pick­ing up equip­ment and balls.

Stub­born fi­nan­cial prob­lems at the U.S. Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home’s golf course in North­west Wash­ing­ton have forced its mem­bers to do what­ever it takes to save the nine-hole course.

Keep­ing the course open at what’s com­monly known as the Old Sol­diers’ Home now in­cludes two hours of manda­tory chores a week at the fair­ways, along with the $700 an­nual fee.

“We were pre­sented with two op­tions: Do noth­ing and the place closes down, or try to fix it up,” said Shad Ewart, a com­mu­nity col­lege pro­fes­sor who was mow­ing grass near the golf shack one day last month. He said he didn’t mind pitch­ing in.

“I didn’t do military ser­vice, and these peo­ple — the res­i­dents — did,” he said. “For me, this is just a lit­tle pay­ing back.”

But Todd A. Weiler, who un­til Jan­uary was the as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense with over­sight over the Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home agency, called the ar­range­ment “just bad busi­ness.”

“The prob­lem with the guys run­ning the Old Sol­diers’ Home,” Weiler said in an in­ter­view, “is that they’re look­ing at this like, ‘We’ll get the res­i­dents to pitch in.’ But you can’t do that. This is not a volunteer com­mu­nity club or a non­profit en­tity. This is a fed­eral en­tity.”

With views of the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment and the Capi­tol Dome, the golf course at the 166-year-old military fa­cil­ity has al­ways at­tracted a small crew of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who like play­ing with the re­tire­ment home’s military veter­ans and don’t mind the mea­ger ameni­ties or way­ward rough.

But last year, the Old Sol­diers’ Home re­sorted to ask­ing its golf mem­bers to

raise $250,000 in do­na­tions to save their 2017 tee times. Just $14,549 was raised through a crowd­source fund­ing ef­fort, though it’s not clear if the money went to the golf course.

The fundrais­ing cam­paign prompted Weiler to investigate the golf course’s operations and the en­tire Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home agency, which con­sists of the Wash­ing­ton cam­pus and a se­cond fa­cil­ity in Gulf­port, Miss. Weiler also asked the De­fense Depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral to investigate.

Weiler’s in­quiry, con­cluded in Novem­ber, found that the Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home agency faces a pro­jected loss of $247 mil­lion for fis­cal years 2017 to 2025 and that there was a “lack of fi­nan­cial over­sight and busi­ness acu­men.”

Christo­pher Kelly, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home agency, said the or­ga­ni­za­tion is try­ing to im­prove its fi­nan­cial forecast by cut­ting costs and adding new rev­enue streams.

“The Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home con­tin­ues work­ing dili­gently with Congress, the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get and its De­fense Depart­ment lead­er­ship to de­velop the best strat­egy to en­sure long-term trust fund sol­vency,” Kelly said in a state­ment.

For years, the Old Sol­diers’ Home has strug­gled with its fi­nances. In 2015, it be­gan seek­ing a part­ner to de­velop up to 80 acres of its valu­able land, hop­ing to in­stall re­tail and med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties, even a ho­tel. But the process stalled out over le­gal rea­sons.

Mean­while, the Wash­ing­ton cam­pus strug­gles to at­tract res­i­dents. Even though the Old Sol­diers’ Home has a ca­pac­ity of 556 beds, its current oc­cu­pancy is 374. Last year, the golf course mem­ber­ship was more than 200; now, there are 90 golfers — 30 of whom are res­i­dents and don’t have to ful­fill the volunteer re- quire­ment.

Weiler said he was star­tled to learn that the fa­cil­ity had been draw­ing from its trust fund to pay for the course’s main­te­nance. The trust fund con­sists of con­gres­sion­ally ap­pro­pri­ated money, fines and for­fei­tures im­posed on military mem­bers, and 50-cent pay­check de­duc­tions from military en­lis­tees.

Recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties at military bases are sup­posed to gen­er­ate their own rev­enue, Weiler said. The Old Sol­diers’ Home golf course is the only one among more than 200 De­fense Depart­ment in­stal­la­tions around the world that had been re­ly­ing pri­mar­ily on gov­ern­ment money.

Weiler ordered the home to stop us­ing the trust fund for the golf course’s up­keep. The di­rec­tive trig­gered a drop-off in fund­ing, prompt­ing the Old Sol­diers’ Home to ask its mem­bers to volunteer at least two hours a week at the course.

Through a spokesman, David Til­lot­son III, who re­placed Weiler as the Pen­tagon’s over­seer of the Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home agency, de­clined to com­ment.

The re­tire­ment home agency is an in­de­pen­dent es­tab­lish­ment in the ex­ec­u­tive branch. But the agency’s head, Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Tim Kan­gas, must re­port to the Of­fice of the Sec­re­tary of De­fense.

Kan­gas de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest.

Kelly, the agency’s spokesman, said it wasn’t im­proper to fi­nance the golf course’s main­te­nance with ap­pro­pri­ated money from the trust fund, which it had been do­ing for more than 25 years. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s sta­tus as an ex­ec­u­tive agency frees it from De­fense Depart­ment’s poli­cies largely bar­ring tax­payer funds for recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties.

But those tech­ni­cal­i­ties didn’t mat­ter to Weiler: “I knew they were vi­o­lat­ing De­fense Depart­ment pol­icy, but as they are go­ing to point out, they don’t have to abide by it. But I mean, do you need a spe­cific law to tell you not to spend tax­payer money on a golf course?”

Be­fore he left the Pen­tagon, Weiler ex­plored the pos­si­bil­ity of golf pros at the An­drews Air Force Base course in Mary­land run­ning the Old Sol­diers’ Home course. But Weiler said the An­drews pros said they needed about $300,000 to im­prove the golf course to at­tract more mem­bers and jus­tify higher fees.

When Weiler couldn’t find a military branch will­ing to chip in the $300,000, he con­sid­ered shut­ting down the course or sell­ing or leas­ing the land.

This spring, af­ter Weiler left his job, the golf course’s mem­bers were told they had to start vol­un­teer­ing at the course if they wanted to keep golf­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the min­utes of a May meet­ing at­tended by the home’s golfers, the new volunteer re­quire­ment is non­nego­tiable.

“If you are not com­fort­able with the new rules and means of op­er­a­tion, don’t ap­ply,” the min­utes read un­der a sec­tion for new mem­ber ap­pli­ca­tions. Another part of the doc­u­ment for ques­tions-and-an­swers says: “In­stead of vol­un­teer­ing, can peo­ple pay more? No.”

Last month, Ken White, 60, a res­i­dent of the home and a Navy vet­eran, was perched on a wide area lawn mower, shav­ing down a fair­way. He cuts the grass three days a week. He loves the Old Sol­diers’ Home and feels pride in help­ing out.

“I re­al­ize the world that we’re in, and ev­ery­one’s wor­ried about bud­gets. I wish there was more fund­ing,” he said. “They all pledge to help the veter­ans, and this is the one thing they should do.”

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Shad Ewart prac­tices his golf swing af­ter fin­ish­ing volunteer main­te­nance du­ties on the golf course at the U.S. Armed Forces Re­tire­ment Home in the District.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.