For the second consecutive time, Watertown officials are pushing ahead with major plans for one of the community’s three swimming pools without adequately gauging public sentiment.
City Council members Cody J. Horbacz, Ryan Henry-Wilkinson and Lisa A. Ruggiero approved a plan a year ago to reconstruct and reopen the bathhouse and pool at Thompson Park. They voted in favor of a measure to spend $2.9 million from the city’s fund balance to cover the bulk of the $3.1 million bid.
The city closed the facility at Thompson Park in 2013 due to its deteriorating condition. For several years, council members debated the merits of spending the money to either refurbish or reconstruct the pool.
Mr. Horbacz, Mr. Henry-Wilkinson and Mrs. Ruggiero touted the pool’s popularity as a rationale for reopening it. But for more than a year, they pledged not to approve any bids in excess of the $2.4 million they had approved for the project in early 2018.
It became obvious, however, that expenses for the bathhouse and pool would not be reduced from the $3.1 million bid they received last year. Still citing the expressed wishes of Watertown residents, these council members abandoned their promise to stay within their previously designated budget and proceeded with the project.
The problem is that it wasn’t exactly clear where the public was on the Thompson Park pool. Mr. Horbacz, for example, offered only anecdotal evidence.
He said that residents overwhelmingly supported the plan when he ran for the council in 2015 as well as when he ran for mayor last year. He also referenced the 2017 Survey of the Community conducted by Jefferson Community College.
But assertions appeared to be wishful thinking on Mr. Horbacz’s part. When presented with separate options for the project, 60 percent of respondents to the 2017 JCC survey said they favored refurbishing the pool and bathhouse for no more than $1.5 million; 44 percent of respondents said they would support building a new pool and bathhouse for up to $3 million. This in no way represents majority support for the plan that was approved.
A few months after the council voted last year to proceed with the plan, Mr. Horbacz made a startling admission. While campaigning for mayor, he estimated that half of the people he spoke with said they did not want the council to reopen the Thompson Park pool.
This was an example of elected officials touting public support for an idea without really knowing where the electorate stood. Three council candidates who voiced their opposition to reopening the pool won all seats open in last year’s election, which gives a strong indication of what voters did and didn’t want.
And most council members are committing the same error this year. In May, they voted to close the Steve D. Alteri Municipal Swimming Pool at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds. And on Aug. 10, they voted to demolish it (Mrs. Ruggiero opposed both measures).
More than 1,300 people signed a petition to keep Alteri pool open, and about 25 residents protested Monday outside City Hall while 10 spoke in favor of the pool during that evening’s council meeting. But Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith made it clear that council members wouldn’t change their minds.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has kept the pool closed this season, so Alteri pool wouldn’t be a financial issue for the city until next year. Therefore, council members have time to see where residents stand on keeping it open and how they could fund it.
Officials should conduct some polling and/or hold public hearings on the matter. If most residents want Alteri pool to remain open, council members could propose various options for paying its yearly expenses. These may include a modest user fee for those who live in the city and a higher fee for those who live outside the city.
What the council shouldn’t do is once again rush into a decision without understanding how constituents view this issue. We need reliable data on what community assets should be retained and how willing residents are to pay for them. This must drive how choices are made, not poking around in the dark.