Imagine you're a small-business owner struggling to scrape by in a trade that takes blood, sweat, pounds of fertilizer, a huge water bill and all your free time. Now consider that your competition pays zero property tax. Add to that the fact that the competition offers a medical, dental and retirement plan that you have little chance of matching.

Survival, to say the least, is difficult.

For years, the situation for local private golf-course owners has been grim. It's no wonder, then, that many are asking for a break.

"It's hard to make ends meet," said Sheryl Starkey, who owns Swan Lakes golf course in Layton, "especially when you're competing against businesses that don't compete on the same playing field."

Those other businesses are municipal courses that thrive without paying property tax. Private courses, in contrast, pay taxes on 100 percent of their assessed property value.

The tax burden is a beast for private owners.

John Schneiter, who operates Schneiter's Bluff in West Point, compares the private golf course owner's plight to the owner of a small family diner.

"The guys who are in it are basically married to it," he said. Owners wake up at the golf course and don't leave until the sun sets.

In the spirit of fair competition, then, many owners argue that their properties should be assessed as open space instead of being taxed for their commercial value.

Davis County clerk/auditor Steve Rawlings said county golf courses actually don't get a break.

"Because it's county-owned, there is not a property tax on the course, but there is a charge to the fund that is equal to what a property tax would be," he said.

Owners of private courses say lower property taxes — based on assessment as open space rather than commercial property — would allow them to offer employee benefits and higher wages, two items that pull good workers away from the private sector and into public positions at municipal courses.

Open space, for most counties, doesn't fit into the equation.

"I don't know why we would do that," said Marcia Dignan, when asked whether private courses should be eligible for open-space taxing. "I can't think of what the rationale would be."

Dignan, a commercial appraiser for Salt Lake County, notes that because golf courses make a profit they should be taxed on the property's commercial profit value.

Todd Smith of the Utah County Assessor's Office agrees.

"They are commercial entities," he says.

Still, many argue that golf courses, which often provide urban land for trees, birds and wildlife, should be given a break, especially in light of the tax break the competition receives.

Former Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson, who helped broker the county's purchase of South Mountain golf course two years ago, favors giving private courses a break.

"I think that's a very good goal," Overson said. "That's green space and there's development pressure. If we're not careful, we'll lose those areas."

Overson said the state Legislature would be wise to include golf courses in green-space laws, which are designed to give farmers a tax break so they can resist pressure from developers.

The former commissioner realizes how tough it is for private courses to survive. He has witnessed South Mountain, which was relatively unsuccessful as a private course, thrive as a municipal course.

In West Valley City, leaders have agreed to pay Dallas-based Evergreen Alliance Golf Limited $9.5 million for the 27-hole Stonebridge Golf Course — seemingly another casualty of government having a competitive golfing advantage over the private sector.

Starkey says the government should even the playing field for private golf courses.

"We would like to have those tax breaks, too."

Contributing: Elyse Hayes.