City pool funding questions linger

The city pool project was approved at the City Council meeting Monday night. Craig Fox/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Four years ago, Councilman Cody J. Horbacz promised voters that he would make sure that the defunct Thompson Park pool would be built.

After delays, alleged stall tactics and cost projections that skyrocketed and led to a pool size reduction, he fulfilled that promise on Monday night.

He was joined by council members Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry Wilkinson — who also campaigned for a new pool when they ran two years ago — on a controversial move to use $2.9 million in the city’s fund balance to pay for it.

“It’s been a very long time and a lot of work,” he said afterward, stressing the pool will be at the historic park for residents to enjoy for the next 100 years.

Afterward, Councilwoman Ruggiero hinted that a fundraising campaign will be established to help pay for the $3.1 million project.

In recent days, she said she was urged to change her vote.

“I feel that changing my vote after getting this far would not be an act of courage, it would actually an act of weakness,” she said.

But Mayor Joseph M. Butler and Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo voted against the move, contending it was a risky method of financing the project that will be used for just two months a year.

Calling it the “most reckless and irresponsible decision” he’s seen in his 12 years in city government, Mayor Butler said “it was a recipe for disaster.”

He warned it was a legacy that will come back to haunt the city and the three city lawmakers.

Using that much of the city’s $10 million fund balance will cause the city’s bond rating to go down, he said.

The mayor also predicted that future councils will have to increase taxes and will no longer be able to rely on the fund balance if sales tax and hydroelectric revenues tank, he said.

Earlier in the night, both the mayor and Councilwoman Compo refused to change a needed fourth vote to amend a $2.4 million bond that would have allowed $700,000 in fund balance to pay the difference for the project that came over budget when the bids were opened on July 25.

For weeks, the mayor and the council members debated the financing for the $3.1 million pool and bathhouse project after the bids came in too high. In 2018, the three council members had vowed not to spend more money than the $2.4 million bond.

On Monday night, about 45 people who both supported and opposed the pool project filled council chambers. Before the vote, the 15 people who spoke had mixed opinions.

Burchard Street resident Timothy Drew asked for caution from council members, adding that the project should be delayed and taken up in the future.

“Hold your checkbooks, hold your idea,” he said, “No one is trying to be a Scrooge.”

But mayoral candidate Cliff G. Olney III told council members that residents have waited long enough.

“We can do this and more,” he said, his comment generating applause.

Cayuga Avenue resident Peggy Sepko said she was disappointed with council members, reminding them that residents pay their salaries.

She blamed the city for not maintaining the old Thompson Park pool and letting it fall apart.

“This is a community built on families,” she said.

In recent weeks, Seymour Street resident Debra Dermady told council members she lobbied residents by painting and distributing about 600 rocks in support of the pool project.

“It’s our money,” she said. “We’re the people.”

Maxwell French, the president of the city employees’ union, warned that the pool project will lead to a cut in services and fewer city workers.

The pool will have four lanes, while the bathhouse will include year-around, heated rest rooms, showers and changing areas.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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