WATERTOWN — Councilman Jesse Roshia thinks he made the right decision about closing the Steve D. Alteri Municipal Swimming Pool at the fairgrounds.
And he would do it again.
During a budget session on Saturday morning, the City Council voted 4-1 to close the pool at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds after getting a recommendation from Parks and Recreation Department Superintendent Erin E. Gardner that morning.
Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith instructed City Manager Kenneth A. Mix to have Ms. Gardner prepare the report for Saturday’s meeting to recommend whether to close the Alteri pool or the William J. Flynn Pool at North Elementary School.
Since then, council members have been criticized for deciding to shut down the Alteri pool in a surprise move on Saturday. The public and council members Lisa Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson didn’t know the pool was going to come up at the meeting as part of this year’s budget discussions, since they were told that the decision would not be made until next year.
On Thursday, Councilman Roshia explained his rationale for making the decision. In his first meeting as a councilman on Jan. 6, he said he had no intention to close either pool until next year.
“A lot has happened since Jan. 6 and May 21, 2020, including the pandemic,” he said.
The city’s financial picture, he said, has changed with the coronavirus pandemic and the city facing layoffs, about a $2.5 million shortfall in sales tax revenues and trying to get the proposed budget down as close to a zero tax increase as possible.
“I made the right decision,” he said. “And I would do it again.”
But Councilwoman Ruggiero was assured in January that any decision about the pools would wait until budget talks next year.
“I took them at their word, and the public took them at their word,” she said, adding closing the pool has no bearing on spending in this year’s budget.
Councilman Roshia, the mayor and Councilwoman Sarah Compo campaigned on closing a pool last fall, contending the city cannot afford three pools, so he considers their win as a referendum on the issue, he said. They also opposed building the new $3.1 million pool at Thompson Park.
They have a majority of council to close a pool and people knew where they stood, he said. He also said there’s no community support for operating three pools in the summer, except for a small group of vocal people who supported three pools.
Seymour Street residents Debbie and Bill Dermady, who organized the Facebook page “Make a Splash-Keep Three Pools in Watertown,” blasted council members for “making an abrupt decision” on closing the Alteri pool without letting the public know it would be voted on without public input on Saturday.
“The city needs neighborhood pools,” Mrs. Dermady said. “We were told there would be no decision this year.”
Councilman Roshia also agrees with Mayor Smith about trying to replace the pool with a splash pad like the one that opened at Thompson Park two summers ago. City officials on Saturday acknowledged it would cost about $500,000 to build a spray park at the fairgrounds.
In defending how the issue was handled, Councilman Roshia said he knew the mayor had asked for city staff to make a recommendation, but didn’t know the report would be discussed on Saturday.
Brushing off criticism about a lack of transparency on Saturday’s vote, he said it was a foregone conclusion that a pool would be lost, whether they “voted on Saturday, Monday or Tuesday,” referring to subsequent council meetings that were scheduled and when the public could have been given the opportunity for input.
He also didn’t understand why the media made such a big deal out of the issue, since council members were able to get the tax rate down to the state tax cap of 1.99 percent.
“We were scraping together what we could to save money,” he said.
The councilman acknowledged that the Alteri family should have been told about their decision. Family members were upset that they didn’t find out until after the fact. The pool was named for a World War II veteran who served on the old Jefferson County Board of Supervisors and as a city councilman.
“If I had to do it over again, I would have done that differently,” he said.