Publisher’s note: This is an op-ed written by Watertown Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith in response to editorials in which this newspaper asked the City Council to delay its decision to close the Fairgrounds pool. It is published here because our Sunday opinion page was completed at the time of submission.
— Alec E. Johnson, Editor & Publisher
In life, we often have to make decisions that are far from easy. That holds true for government as well. Recently, I voted in support of decommissioning the City of Watertown’s Fairgrounds Pool. I can say with absolute certainty that no member of Council—myself included—was happy to make this decision. However, it was a decision that was responsible and helps to begin the very important task of addressing the City’s future financial needs and challenges.
In recent weeks, the Watertown Daily Times has opined on this very issue. Specifically, in an August 13, 2020 editorial, the publication begged the question, “what’s the rush?” Other supporters of keeping the pool open have asked the same thing and said to wait, because we “don’t know what the future holds.” However, in part, we do know what the future does hold for the City of Watertown.
We know with absolute certainty that in less than 10 years, our City will face a $6 million annual loss in revenue due to the end of our lucrative hydropower contract with National Grid. To make up that revenue in today’s dollars, taxes would need to be raised 65 percent.
Deciding to wait, not acting, not reducing expenses and keeping the status quo would be the easy political, self-serving decision that keeps everyone happy. Unfortunately, though, that lack of action irresponsibly kicks the can down the road for another Council to deal with and does not move the Council any further toward its goal of reducing expenses and saving funds to mitigate the impact of the “fiscal cliff” that is coming in 2029.
It is important to note that while COVID-19 did bring our City’s financial issues to the forefront, it wasn’t the driving force behind this decision. This year, our budget gap was roughly $2 million. To say this was a challenging budget would be an understatement. Additionally, the state of New York has advised the City they are withholding 20 percent of State aid from last year and this year’s budget, this is almost another $2 million loss in revenue. Sales tax is down. Businesses are closed. People are out of work. As I have said many times, the most recent budget deliberations were merely an appetizer for what’s to come.
I believe that all City of Watertown residents and taxpayers should be asking themselves three important questions:
1. Does the City of Watertown NEED three pools?
2. Can the City of Watertown afford three pools?
3. Has anyone not been served as a result of our City only having two pools over the past 7 years?
To address question one, I think we all need to ask what the standards and benchmarks are when it comes to pools in other communities of similar size in New York state. The National Park and Recreation Association has published a recommendation for communities to have one pool per 20,000 people. Watertown exceeds that standard with two pools for 25,300 people. And, here’s a look at how we stack up against other communities across our state of similar size:
City of Watertown: 25,290 — two pools
Peekskill: 24,000 people — one pool
Auburn: 26,500 people — one pool
Ithaca: 30,000 people — two pools
Troy: 50,000 people — one pool
Poughkeepsie: 30,500 — two pools
Now, on to affordability. Again, we know with absolute certainty that we need to eliminate expenses and look for new revenue generators to lessen the blow that will undoubtedly occur when our National Grid contract ends in 2029. As many people know, while pools are recreational assets, they aren’t the greatest investments.
In 2019, $125,000 was spent to operate the Fairgrounds Pool. The average cost to operate two pools, over the course of the past five years has been $98,000 per pool, per year. That’s $196,000 annually. It’s also worth noting that the Fairgrounds Pool needs more than $100,000 in upgrades, whereas similar repairs were performed recently at the pool on our city’s north side. Additionally, Parks and Recreation staff charged with taking care of the pool have stated that the work needed is significant.
When you look at the flipside, the rough estimate to decommission the pool is somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000, as was presented by the city engineer at the August 11, 2020 City Council work session. That figure is significantly less than what it would cost to operate the Fairgrounds Pool for one year. Furthermore, eliminating just this one pool from our city’s budget would help to save over $1 million in operational costs over a period of ten years.
On to question 3, “has anyone not been served as a result of our city only having two pools over the past 7 years?” The answer to this would be no. There are people in our city who would like to answer that question by saying, “Well the city’s always had three pools.” As Councilman (Jesse) Roshia has pointed out, it’s that thought process that has led to many problems — and bankruptcies — in government. An unwillingness to make changes and improvements because “it’s always been done that way” is one of the reasons our state is in an economic decline. I would argue also, that it’s that same way of thinking that has led to the decline of large industry and manufacturing in upstate New York. How many paper mills, factories, mines or other plants did we have before the 1980s? While I recognize that New York state taxes and regulations didn’t help, many of these industries are no longer viable because they didn’t upgrade their operations or adapt to the global market.
Much like them, the City of Watertown is a business, or a corporation, if you will. No, it does not look to make a profit, but just like any successful operation it must be run efficiently and effectively. And, just like any other business that saw major challenges on the horizon, we must start addressing now the real financial issues we will face in the next decade.
Listening to the concerns of my constituents is one of the most important parts of my job. While some will say I didn’t listen to their point of view on this issue, that could not be further from the truth. I am thankful for the feedback. However, many people don’t support three pools. Additionally, another important part of my role as mayor is looking out for the financial future of our city and its taxpayers. The decision to close the Fairgrounds pool, again, was not easy. However, it is a decision that starts to address our short and long-term financial hurdles and at the same time, still ensures that our entire community will be provided with recreational opportunities made possible by the service of two pools, including a brand-new pool and bathhouse at Thompson Park.
Jeffrey M. Smith
Mayor, City of Watertown