Wednesday, September 02, 2009

My City's Municipal Swimming Pool Debate

There has been a debate running for about a decade in my city about the municipal swimming facility. Some residents recently expressed their chagrin with a tax increase that they nail on the pool (see St-Ex article). It seems to me that the issues at stake are usually muddled together. This lack of clarity limits the usefulness of the debate. I think that teasing the issues apart would help the debate. As I see it, the main issues are:
  • Some residents feel that city government has no business being involved in a water recreation facility. They feel that recreation of this nature should be handled privately rather than at the taxpayers’ expense. In their mind, no one has a right to force his neighbor to pay for his own recreation.
  • Some residents feel that the city can’t afford a swimming recreation facility. They want the city to be more fiscally responsible.
  • Some residents feel that city officials made an end run around the wishes of voters in constructing a new water recreation facility.
  • Some feel that the city’s recreational (Community Services) structure is mismanaged and uses its resources inefficiently.
There is definitely overlap among these groups, but the groups are not exactly the same. And I think that’s where some of the confusion comes in. Some that fall in the area where all the groups overlap tend to believe that there is really only one issue and that everyone in all the groups essentially agrees with them. These, I think, are the ones that are most vocal on the issue.

Perhaps a little history would be useful. Here is a rough outline:
  • 1965: The city builds a basic outdoor swimming pool.
  • About 10 years ago: Several northern Utah cities build modern water recreation facilities with lots of fancy features. At the same time it is noted that the city pool is getting old. Maintenance costs are increasing and it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the rustic facility operational.
  • 2000: City officials propose bonding (requiring a tax increase) to construct a new outdoor swimming facility that will be on par with some of the other newer facilities in nearby municipalities. Proponents claim that the new pool will be financially self sustaining or even turn a profit. Voters oppose the measure by about a 6-4 margin.
  • 2001: City officials begin discussing ways to build the facility without needing voter approval. The mayor loses by four votes to a challenger that denounces the pursuit of a new swimming pool as a fiasco.
  • 2002-5: The city discovers that the old pool is leaking hundreds of gallons of water daily. Bids to repair the problem are cost prohibitive. The pool is eventually closed. City officials renew their efforts to find ways to fund the new swimming facility. Neighboring cities and the school district are approached for a possible joint venture, but this does not pan out. Pool proponents again claim that the new pool will more than pay for itself. City officials finally work a deal that does not require voter approval. Pool opponents cry that the new mayor has gone back on his word.
  • 2005: The previous mayor convincingly beats the new mayor in an election rematch. Pool plans move forward.
  • 2006: The new swimming facility opens more than a month late. It lacks some of the water play features that are installed later — some of them just in time for the 2007 season. When complete, the facility is very nice, but some youth group leaders complain that rates are so high that they can’t afford to bring youth groups to the facility.
  • 2007: City officials propose bonding (requiring a tax increase) to construct a $2 million building that would house the lap pool, which is only half the size of a competitive Olympic pool. Covering this small pool, it is argued, will allow the facility to function year round. Opponents argue that this is fiscally irresponsible. Voters reject the proposal by a 3-1 ratio.
  • 2007-9: The new swimming facility becomes fully operational. The city structures management of the pool to include three full-time year-round management positions. A new community services building is constructed to house the burgeoning staff structure.
I took swimming lessons at the old pool when I was a kid. My oldest children took some swimming lessons there. During my childhood, my family bought a season pass to the pool each year. Walking to the pool, swimming for an hour or two, and then walking home became a nearly daily ritual for us during those years. All of my children have taken lessons at the new pool. But we don’t generally swim there very often because it’s kind of expensive to take the whole family.

Some residents are upset that the pool is losing about $83,000 annually. They wonder what happened to claims that the pool would actually make money. City officials are now fond of saying that no municipal pool pays for itself, let alone makes a profit. City parks don’t pay for themselves, yet we build and maintain them anyway because they enhance the community. Why would a pool or another recreation facility be any different, they reason.

This makes sense, but it is a huge departure from the rhetoric tossed around before the pool was built. Besides, some note that this year’s tax increase would not have been necessary without the pool’s operational shortfall.

It is clear that there are some sharp differences of opinion when it comes to the municipal swimming pool. Many residents are pleased to have the facility. This includes some people that voted against both of the bonds mentioned above. It seems to me that most residents want the city to live within its means without jacking up taxes. But most of these people also don’t want to know the details. They just want their elected officials to take care of it.

The fact of the matter is that the city now has a swimming facility that it will need to operate and maintain for the long term. That’s just not going to change, no matter how much people carp about it. The city now has an obligation to make the pool as broadly appealing and useful as possible. I think, however, that it would be wise and possible to more prudently structure the pool’s management. Getting rid of just one of the three full-time management positions would have made this year’s tax increase unnecessary.

In the meantime, the mayor is running for a third term after raising taxes two years in a row. He is being opposed by a longtime city council member whose term is wrapping up. Given this man’s voting record, it is unclear how he would be much different than the current mayor. Unless people have a good reason to switch, most of them won’t, although, I am personally in favor of limiting a mayor’s terms to two. A third opponent in the race is well known in the community as a very staunch libertarian conservative. His campaign signs include the slogan, “Living within our means.” That sounds nice, but this man frankly scares a lot of people.

Two city council seats are up for election and both are being vacated by the incumbents. Five people are vying for these two seats. I know absolutely nothing about two of these candidates. I know two others personally. I know the quality of their character, but I am less clear on their politics. I am more clear on the politics of the last fellow, but I get the feeling that he is mainly running as a voice of opposition rather than out of a desire to actually win, since he has done little campaigning.

The swimming pool and the issues that surround it are not formally on the ballot. But the pool will be in the back of the minds of many voters as they go to the polls. As both races require a primary election, early voting is currently available at the city council chambers on Tuesday through Friday this week and next, from 1-5pm each of these days. Or you can wait in line on primary election day, Sept. 15.


Bradley Ross said...

You didn't make it clear where you stand on the pool debate. I'm really curious to hear where you stand and why. It seems like young families are least able to afford paying for the sorts of facilities that can really enhance a community for young kids. The goodness of the facility doesn't seem to be a question.

The real question is how the facility should have been financed. I guess I'm pretty persuaded that the swimming facility is similar to a park and is a fair expenditure for a city so long as it can afford it. Do you oppose or support the pool on ideological or pragmatic grounds?

Scott Hinrichs said...

I did not say that I opposed the pool. I must admit that I'm somewhat ambivalent about it. I understand the principled libertarian views of those that say that the city has no business providing the pool or any other recreation facility (including city parks). I understand the Coase Theorem, but I can't see that it would work in a way that most people would find socially acceptable with respect to municipal recreation facilities.

Besides your standard parks, our city also has a small skate park and a senior's center. There is no direct charge for many ad-hoc activities at these facilities. (I can walk into any of the parks and play Frisbee with my kids anytime I want.) There is a charge for reserving any of the facilities for events. I think that these offerings all enhance the community. Could they be privately provided? I'm not convinced that this is the case.

The pool is a special case because it required taxpayer approval and because there is a direct charge for any use of the pool. Not only do I pay taxes to support the pool, I cannot use it without paying an additional fee. Moreover, taxpayers voted against the bond, but the city effectively incurred the expense and put it on the taxpayers' shoulders anyway through a different funding mechanism.

I felt significantly benefited from having access to the municipal pool as a kid. I think it would be a shame not to replace the defunct pool so that today's children could enjoy the benefits I enjoyed. But did we have to do it on such a grand scale? And is all of the management expense necessary?

The fact is that we have the pool and the politicians that brought us the pool have since been re-elected by the voters. As far as I can tell, none of the council members suffered for their support of the pool. The two mayors discussed each lost an election because of his handling of the pool issue, but voters ultimately re-elected the original pool-supporting mayor. To me this means that the voters aren't terribly displeased about the pool.

I can't say that I am opposed to a swimming pool on principle. I am opposed to the city building any facility that exceeds fiscal responsibility. And I think that any cost a city considers incurring should carefully consider the taxes paid by those in the community that can least afford them.