Municipal golf courses in Minnesota are "teeing off on taxpayers," losing millions of dollars a year while competing with private owners in a declining business, a conservative research group said Thursday.

But the manager of one of the courses listed as one of the top 10 "money holes" begged to differ.

"The numbers they are using are not the full story," said Larry Norland, golf manager for the city of Anoka. "The losses they say have occurred here are mostly, if not entirely, depreciation, which is a viable business expense but does not represent a loss of tax dollars. ... As of right now, we're self-supporting."

The blast came from the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, led by Republican activist and Metropolitan Council Member Annette Meeks. She is seeking to make the often byzantine world of municipal finance more transparent to taxpayers.

The bottom line, the group said:

"[An] analysis of city-owned golf courses throughout the state concludes that municipal golf courses lost approximately $2 million in 2007, the most recent year with comprehensive available data of municipal golf enterprise funds. At $50 per round, that's the equivalent of about 40,000 rounds of taxpayer-subsidized golf a year."

The Star Tribune tackled the same subject on Sunday. The newspaper asked a sample of metro-area cities and one county to disclose their own recent trends in the numbers of rounds sold and surpluses or deficits for golfing operations.

The result for most was a sharp deterioration in both areas, with declines of 25 to 35 percent in rounds sold common over the past five to 10 years. Most suburbs saw surpluses melt into deficits.

The Freedom Foundation, meanwhile, chose to draw its numbers from a uniform statewide database. That enabled it to capture far more cities but left it open to more dispute about what the numbers mean.

While conceding that its approach leaves out some cities that don't choose to operate through "enterprise funds," the foundation published a top 10 list of money losers over the five-year period ending in 2007.

The list included, in order, Moorhead, Buffalo, Chaska, Anoka, Becker, Virginia, Little Falls, New Prague, La Crescent and Janesville.

Responding to the criticism of Anoka's Norland, the foundation's investigative director, Tom Steward, said:

"The city of Anoka's issue is with the uniform state accounting standards, which takes depreciation into account. He should take this up with the state auditor, since we're simply reporting the data submitted and published by the city to the state auditor."

Jim Miller, executive director of the state's League of Cities, said there's nothing wrong with subsidizing golf if it's providing something worthwhile.

"I live in Mendota Heights," he said, "where there was an interesting proposal a couple of years ago to close the municipal course, which was losing money. That went on the ballot, and a tax increase to support it was approved." While city councils should "routinely evaluate whether it's in the public interest to maintain a course," he added, "it's simplistic to say that any course that's losing money should close."

All sides agree that golf has hit a rough patch.

"Golf has struggled the last couple of years along with any business that depends on 'extra' dollars," Norland said. "We are probably overbuilt. We are very fortunate in Anoka that our course has a great name and great location and the city is very supportive and will be as long as we're self-sustaining; but no doubt there are pockets [elsewhere in the state] that have not fared as well."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023