North Charleston's budget drafters will shift more than $1 million to the city-run golf course at Wescott Plantation again this year to cover its debt and shortfalls -- just like they did last year.

And the year before that. And before that, as well.

Ever since the course opened in 1999 in the upper Dorchester Road corridor, the city's only fully public golf site has been a financial loser, where the $40 to $89 fee for 18 holes routinely means failing to break even at a time when the number of rounds played is in decline.

The budget makeup is such a regular occurrence that City Councilman Steve Ayer routinely calls for the 27-hole course to be sold, calling it a financial "hole in the ground" that has never stood on its own.

Supporters, meanwhile, say the issue isn't simply a matter of looking at one page of the city's $88 million annual operating budget. The bigger picture, they argue, is the growth in the city's tax base and housing starts that the golf course has helped sprout.

After Wescott opened to the public in 1999, North Charleston's annexations and growth toward the Summerville area exploded up Dorchester Road. Neighborhood development took off and so did retail and restaurants. Census numbers show the population growth in the area became so great in the last decade that a seat on City Council will be created this year entirely within Dorchester County lines.

City data further shows that property tax collections in Dorchester County skyrocketed, going from $800,000 a year in 2000, to more than $7.3 million for fiscal 2011.

Mayor Keith Summey said the nine-fold increase in taxes means concentrating on Dorchester County has been smart city strategy.

"If we had not had that kind of development, we would not have seen that kind of growth," Summey said last week, defending Wescott as something the third largest city in the state needs for both recreation and as a quality-of-life selling point.

Summey said he expects the golf course's annual debts to be cut by more than half in the next 12 years, once the purchased land for the course is paid off through a 20-year bond.

North Charleston isn't alone in golf course financial woes. By comparison, the city of Charleston's much older Municipal Golf Course -- the only other city-owned course in the region -- also finished in the red last year, to the tune of about $70,000.

Elsewhere, it is widely accepted that most golf courses across the state have taken a financial hit in the last few years as property taxes increased and the economic meltdown led to higher operating costs and also a decline in players. Wescott's rounds have dropped significantly over that time, down from about 43,750 in 2006, to around 33,700 last year.

Terry Sedalik, executive director of the S.C. Golf Course Owner's Association, said golf course success can also be closely tied to weather, with cold winters or rainy springs and summers prone to upset financial forecasts.

Councilman Ayer acknowledged that the growth in tax base that has emerged from that part of the city is significant, but he said it still doesn't make sense to keep the course in city hands.

"We're subsidizing a million dollars a year of our budget when we've got drainage problems and sidewalks needing to be put in," he said. "I say get rid of it and let somebody else have it."

This year, though, Ayer gave up on his habit of protesting the golf course, saying that trying to sell in the current down economy would hinder getting anywhere near a decent sales price. Also, he didn't think he could find anyone on council to "second" his anti-golf course position.

The numbers

Annual Wescott golf rounds played

Year / Total

2010 / 33,695

2009 / 36,501

2008 / 39,998

2007 / 40,765

2006 / 43,757

North Charleston's yearly General Fund Budget transfers to cover Wescott operating shortfall and annual debt service payments

Year / Total

2011 / $1,042,500* projected

2010 / $1,511,309

2009 / $1,333,086

2008 / $1,557,527

2007 / $1,439,070

2006 / $1,451,903

Debt service costs run about $850,000 a year

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.