In December 2017, members of the Watertown City Council established a budget for the Thompson Park pool/bathhouse project at $2.4 million.
Incumbent Councilmen Cody J. Horbacz and Mark C. Walczyk along with newly elected members Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson voted to approve a bond issue for this amount at their first meeting last year. All four supported the idea during their campaigns (2015 for Mr. Horbacz and Mr. Walczyk, and 2017 for Mrs. Ruggiero and Mr. Henry-Wilkinson).
And they repeatedly pledged to stick to this budget. Mr. Walczyk declared on the record in mid-January 2018 that he would “push to ensure it is completed under cost,” according to a Jan. 15, 2018, story in the Watertown Daily Times. The other three committed to this goal shortly thereafter, a May 9, 2018, Times story reported.
Sarah V. Compo, who was appointed this past January to succeed Mr. Walczyk on the council, also said she would support the plan — but only if it remained within the agreed upon cost. Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. stood alone last year in opposing the bond issue. He supported reopening the pool and voted to budget for the project. But he preferred financing it through means other than taxpayer funds.
Since the bond issue was approved in January 2018, council members began confronting issues that have increased expenses for the project. They believed at first the pool could be renovated. But this wasn’t at all feasible, so they decided a new pool needed to be constructed.
Then city officials discovered an application for a $500,000 state grant wasn’t approved. In addition, they were told that other factors had hiked the price tag by about $300,000.
When bids finally came in, city officials learned they would need to shell out more than $3 million for the combined pool/bathhouse. This leaves an estimated shortfall of $900,000.
To their credit, council members have worked diligently to lower costs and keep the project within budget. The bathhouse was reduced in size by 15 percent; the number of toilets was cut by more than 50 percent; and the pool was shrunk by 20 percent. But this is an elaborate undertaking, and some city officials doubted it could be kept within $2.4 million. Their predictions proved accurate.
So having stated time and again that they wouldn’t approve costs exceeding this amount, why haven’t council members abandoned the project? Can we not count on them to keep their word?
Mr. Butler and Ms. Compo remain opposed to appropriating any more money to the pool/bathhouse construction. But Mr. Horbacz, Mrs. Ruggiero and Mr. Henry-Wilkinson have said they’re looking for ways to carry on with the plan despite the fact that it has gone over budget.
They wanted to transfer $900,000 from the fund balance to cover the shortfall. But state bond law would require four votes to do so. The city’s $2.4 million bond would need to be amended to cover the entire cost, but this also would need four votes.
Mr. Horbacz, Mrs. Ruggiero and Mr. Henry-Wilkinson are considering paying for the entire project with revenue from the fund balance, which now has $10.1 million. It should maintain at least $8 million for specific cash flow purposes.
For these council members to renege on their promise not to allow the proposal to exceed $2.4 million is unacceptable. They agreed to this limit when the bond issue was passed, and they have consistently said they would stick to it.
They no doubt believed they could keep the pool within this budget. But in declaring that they wouldn’t let the cost increase, they acknowledged the possibility that it could. This showed they understood the project wasn’t worth more than that.
They were firm on where they stood — right up until they realized that $2.4 million simply wouldn’t cut it. Then they decided that their prior statements on holding the line on expenses were meaningless.
Draining the fund balance of more than $3 million for a pool at Thompson Park is reckless. This revenue is to be used for emergency purposes, and emergencies crop up unexpectedly from time to time. To throw this money at a facility that will be used for less than two months out of the year is fiscal absurdity.
The council members promoting this option would likely declare that using fund balance revenue for the pool means the city won’t have to bond for it. This will save interest on the project because it will be completely financed up front.
However, this will increase the odds that emergency items will need to be bonded due to a lack of money in the fund balance to pay for them. Saving interest on the pool now will necessitate incurring it on upcoming spending needs.
If these council members were going to spend whatever it took to carry out this project, they should have said so from the beginning. And if they suspected that cost increases may be unavoidable, they shouldn’t have set this limit. But they miscalculated the scope of reconstructing the pool and bathhouse and committed themselves to a pledge they now wish to ignore.
What’s worse, they are doing this in the absence of firm evidence of widespread support for the Thompson Park pool. Aside from their comments about voters electing them based on this plan, they have nothing to offer here.
This is particularly problematic for Mr. Horbacz. He’s running for mayor because, he said, he’s “ready to lead.” Breaking his promise is not an example of leadership — it’s a dereliction of duty.
Effective governance is possible only if people have faith in those who hold public office. How can we trust Mr. Horbacz, Mrs. Ruggiero and Mr. Henry-Wilkinson to make good on their word down the road if they refuse to honor it now?