When choosing between bureaucrats and politicians, it’s difficult determining whom in government we should trust more.
Both have histories of dubious behavior. Bureaucrats often ensnare members of the public in endless red tape. And many politicians tell voters what they want to hear only to become tone-deaf once they assume office.
Constituents certainly have a right to hold authorities accountable for their actions. Such decisions affect the lives of the residents they serve, so keeping watch over them is vital.
But playing these groups against each other may erode confidence in local government. Some people in Watertown have engaged in this practice over the past few years. If all they accomplish is to satisfy their egos, our community will have been very poorly served.
Reconstructing the swimming pool at Thompson Park is a textbook example. The city closed it in 2013 because it had deteriorated so much. Deciding when to reopen it became a point of contention between those who wanted to salvage the cherished facility and those who believed the project too expensive.
No one doubts the value of having a functioning pool at Thompson Park. It’s been a featured asset at the historic green space for more than 90 years. Breathing new life into the pool, therefore, would be a dream come true for many residents.
But balancing a strained budget requires establishing spending priorities. Are there more pressing needs at this moment for the dollars that would go into building a new pool?
Some department heads had warned City Council members that this is the case. And an honest assessment of Watertown’s financial challenges leads me to agree with them. A new pool in Thompson Park would be wonderful, but now is not a good time to undertake this work.
I understand that supporters of this project are frustrated with this message. It’s the same one they’ve heard for more than five years. Council members have found it easy to frown on items requiring big spending in any particular year, so they promoted fiscal responsibility and repeatedly kicked the can down the road.
And this behavior can be self-serving. Watertown’s property taxes are lower than those of some similarly sized north country communities.
Resisting tax hikes made council members look good, despite how it drained city coffers of the funds to maintain municipal assets in the long run. Residents enjoyed this slower rate of spending and rewarded their representatives by keeping them in place on Election Day.
But then they realized the city had little money left over to repair recreational facilities. And the longer the City Council took to commit to a major project, the more expensive the plan grew.
As part of his bid for mayor in this year’s election, Councilman Cody J. Horbacz correctly identified this problem. He said residents have paid comparatively lower property taxes, but this has thwarted Watertown from adequately maintaining its facilities. He led a council majority three months ago to approve the plan to build a new pool and bathhouse at Thompson Park.
But Horbacz lost last week’s three-way contest to Jeffrey M. Smith, who opposed the project as too pricey (at least $3.1 million) and unnecessary (the city operates two other pools). As a previous council member, Smith joined like-minded colleagues in rejecting tax increases and insisting budget spending be minimized.
Horbacz began asserting a mandate on the pool four years ago. Since being elected to the council in 2015 with this issue as part of his platform, he continually claimed that most residents wanted him to move forward on it.
However, Tuesday’s election results showed Horbacz to be mistaken. He never produced solid evidence that a new pool/bathhouse at this estimated cost had majority support.
Along with council members Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson, Horbacz initially said he wouldn’t support the pool/bathhouse project if it exceeded $2.4 million — the bonding amount they approved in January 2018. He wanted to eat his cake and have it to: He championed the average joes in the city who don’t have nice things, and he promised to keep costs for the pool down. In essence, he positioned himself as a fiscally prudent populist.
But when it became obvious the project would be more expensive, Horbacz had to pick between voting against the plan and breaking his word on the price. So he voted to approve the costlier plan. Then he audaciously blamed staffers for “slow walking” the proposal as well as adding unnecessary features to it.
What? Couldn’t he have stopped these occurrences while they were happening, or didn’t he notice what was going on?
Horbacz’s biggest flaw is that he dismissed the city’s experts on how complicated and expensive the pool/bathhouse would become — and he was praised for doing so. Alan Walts, who recently retired as morning radio host on WTNY-AM 790, commended Horbacz for standing up to “the bureaucrats” after the council approved the project in August. Yes, let’s discard the professional advice of those whose job it is to offer knowledgeable assessments!
In addition, Horbacz ignored the people whose interests he professed to represent. Speaking with the Watertown Daily Times editorial board in October, he estimated that half the residents with whom he spoke while campaigning said they didn’t want the pool/bathhouse project to proceed.
So while proclaiming that a decisive majority of the electorate agreed with his plan, Horbacz actually heard otherwise as he went door to door. At the same time, he overrode the judgment of city officials on the true scope of this project.
The lesson here is that bureaucrats oftentimes have the truth on their side. We pay them for their expertise on city operations and finances, so casting them as villains can be counterproductive. This cost Horbacz the election, and it stuck us with a more expensive pool and bathhouse that has weaker public support than proponents claimed.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.