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Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Pool and Playground for Everyone

For quite a few years now our town pool, Moriello, has been an issue of debate and contention. So much so that after awhile many of us get so sick of talking about it we throw up our hands in frustration and refuse to talk about it. The overpriced, shabby bathhouse took years to build. Many people take issue with the fact that the pool is not open to the public till noon. But those posts are for another day (or never).Today, I want to write about a possible solution to the playground problem.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the playground at Moriello is only open to pool members or those that pay a daily fee. This is problematic for people who believe all town residents should have open access irrespective of pool usage, in particular, many of the private donors who contributed funds towards the building of the playground.

In order to provide an equitable solution, I propose we explore the possibility of funding the pool through the tax levy instead of membership and user fees. So, the key question is: What would the added cost be to taxpayers if we eliminated memberships and user fees for town residents at the pool and spread the tax burden to all taxpayers so that everybody could be let in?

I asked Toni Hokanson and here are some preliminary numbers, her words: if the estimated pool revenue is put back into the budget to be generated by taxes then a $245,000 house would pay an additional $16; a $500,000 house, $33; and a $1 million dollar house, $66.

So, these figures seem reasonable to me, would allow access to all town residents to the playground regardless of their desire to swim, and would allow for many people who cannot afford a membership now to be able to use the pool all season long. (A family membership this year costs $150.) However, there are concerns that this system would increase usage so much so that maximum capacity would be reached too often and people might be turned away.

So, I have requested this discussion item be put on the agenda for the 7/23 Town Board meeting and for the following information to be made available for the discussion (perhaps ambitious to get by then – I made this request yesterday – but what they could get by 7/23 should be enough to start the conversation):

* Revenue generated by memberships and day rates paid by town residents for the last 5 years
* (Confirmed) Estimated increase in tax rates if these revenues were collected as part of the tax levy and not user memberships and fees
* Pool usage figures for the last 5 years: daily head counts, average daily head count
* Pool usage figures (above) broken down by members/residents paying fees/non-residents paying fees and adults/kids
* Dates in the past 5 years when the pool exceeded max capacity
* Documentation on how max capacity is computed (how do they compute that anyway since people only sign in and not out?)
* Projected population figures for the town for the next 5 years

I passed this idea by my fellow Gadfly Terence, and here are his thoughts:

Generally, I support this notion and believe it to be affordable, but some thoughts to consider:
* $16 is not very much, but that same reasoning could easily be applied to any number of excellent projects. It doesn't take much for collective pittances to become a pit of taxation that isn't very affordable. As long as we're bound to the medieval system of taxing land instead of wealth, we must approach any increase, no matter how small, with the big picture in mind.
* We could probably fund this easily by simply making the police stop buying gas hogs and put them back into cars like the rest of us. Crime fighting cars to be sure, but ones that get 40 MPG minimum would be nice.
* The plastic pool house continues to be a problem, but it could cut either way:
- It barely increased restroom capacity and is the reason why the playground and barbecues must be accessed only through the pool, we're told (although removing the fence around the playground wouldn't increase liability beyond what Hasbrouck Park now faces, so I doubt that argument).
- Because it's so substandard, it may just keep people away, encouraging them to go to the county's pool, which has a building made of permanent materials instead of Lego.
* Plenty of people aren't paying for the pool now, so the figures aren't remotely accurate. All one has to do is sign in on the member list to gain access, and this is the way that many kids (and probably some adults) get in a swim. Rather than cracking down on the offenders, I would think that moving to taxation is a way to get the necessary funding without punishing overheated poor people.
* Kids are much less likely to carry wallets with ID, and it's important to make access easy for everyone. Our current, and ineffective, gate system would work quite well if residents didn't have to pay. The few non-residents who use our pool in favor of the county's would actually be a much lower number than the percentage of non-payers we currently enjoy.

Thoughts? Please comment here… and come to the Town Board meeting on the 23rd.

kt Tobin Flusser and Terence Ward

11 comments:

Jason West said...

I want to think about this idea more before commenting on the gist of the post, but do take exception to your characterization of the bath house as "overpriced and shabby".

While the first try at the bath house ended up tangled in litigation, once that litigation was cleared up, we got the bath house built within budget (approxiately $300k) and in eight months.

I actually wish we could have spent more on the bath house -- we built as stripped down and functional a building as we could to meet all state and local health codes (i.e., having only one possible entrance to the pool).

As a professional painter and building-finisher, I would have loved to have been able to spend money on nicer fixtures, wall surfaces, etc.

Unfortunately, the state WICKS Law requires that government construction projects NOT hire the same company to do all facets of the work. We needed to hire separate firms to do the HVAC, construction, plumbing, etc. When you add in the cost of simply having to hire different companies, added to the time the village engineer and superintendant of public works has to spend GCing the project, it enourmously inflates the costs of construction beyond what a private citizen would have to pay.

Martin McPhillips said...

So the concern here is that the public playground should be available to those who wish to use it while the pool is open but who are not interested in using the pool.

Have I got that right?

The double-bind logistics being that opening the non-pool entrance to the playground while the pool is open also opens the pool to those who wish to circumvent the fee while also relinquishing parental control over their kids by, well...etc. It's what was once upon a time known as a "pickle."

So, exactly how often do parents and kids show up during the swimming hours of the swimming season wanting to use the playground but not the pool? It seems odd to me that there is a considerable market for that, given that the primary attraction of that location has always been the pool. Plus, there's a playground in Hasbrouck Park.

But if the pool doesn't open to the public until noon, then keep the playground open to the public until then, and then close off that entrance at noon until the pool closes, and if the pool closes before the playground closes, open the playground back up again.

And don't add the pool's cost of operation to the tax rolls, especially for the purpose of resolving a "have your cake and eat it too" problem.

Also, there's nothing wrong with a public amenity being paid for on a fee-for-use basis. People treat things better when they have to pay directly for them.

There's no reason to tax people for an additional amenity they don't use.

P.S.: I've only been in the Moriello Pool once, ah, several deca...a ways back, at about 1:00 a.m., and was graciously informed (along with three or four friends) by the police that the pool was in fact closed at that hour. Haven't been back since, but I'll be happy to send the belated fee for a day, or would it be night, pass to the appropriate body.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed pondering this thoughtful blog and the comments that followed. We all know that taxes are crazy in NY because of it's system. So, do we just swallow hard, do what we think is right and let the tax bill fall where it may? Or do we instead set the tax bill as the guiding priority and select which community amenities get funded? If the later, lets list all the services now being paid for by tax dollars and see how they weigh against the free pool idea. I think they would include teen programs, the library, recreation programs, recycling programs (yes there is a big cost to this), enhanced police protection for the bars, public access TV, fields of dreams, BMX track and support for Family of New Paltz- just to name a few. Then let's figure out if a free pool is important enough to make comparable deletions from the the list. Another alternative might be to charge $1 kids, $2 adults daily admission. Most anyone could afford that. The whole family could go for the cost of one pack of cigarettes. To make up the difference, maybe a Friends of the Pool group could be formed to fundraise for their cause much like the Library does. Choices are not always X or Y. There are many possibilities in between.

kt tobin flusser said...

(kt on behalf of butch, we really need him to get a google acct!)

If anyone visits Saugerties Rec fields and such, they will see a magnificent community asset - WHY? BECAUSE THEY HAVE INDUSTRY PAYING TAXES!!! if the anti-growth gang would shut up for a while and let some decent commercial and industrial growth take place ( with infrastructure on North Putt anyone??? ) we could have PLATINUM rec facilities too. but NOOO,,, stop all tax paying growth, right? short sited and hypocritical in my mind,,
Respectfully,
Butch Dener

Terence said...

Butch,

This is one of the reasons I hate a land-based tax system. We're forced to make decisions based on factors like the tax revenue stream, when we should be able to think about the types of businesses that would add value to the community. A good example of that is the Crossroads project - the primary motivation for it is the tax revenue, plain and simple, when it's far more important to think about why we want a development that would create jobs that wouldn't pay the rents they would charge there. I'd rather see higher-paying skilled labor jobs that would allow workers to afford the rents which are so high because landlords need to pay taxes based on land value . . . see what I mean?

About North Putt Corners - where exactly do you think we could put infrastructure there? On the east side the land is a fairly thin strip abutting the Thruway and on the west what isn't developed is mostly wetlands. Were you thinking of the Freihofer building? That might not be bad.

Jason West said...

I sort of agree with Butch, but I think from slightly different reasoning.
1) Environmentalists focus so much on preserving 'open space' that we forget that the other half to that equation is creating better development. We ignore our own needs. We need to create healthy "human habitat" as well as preserve wilderness.

2) It's possible to have good development. There are lots of places that people love, and we should build more of them. Think Venice, Amsterdam, Paris, Savannah, parts of Boston...and all the quaint little towns around here - downtown New Paltz, Stone Ridge, Main Street Rosendale.

3) We should have more industry, but small-scale and integrated into hamlets.

4) We have to outlaw sprawl. Suburban subdivisions cost $1.25 in services while only generating $1 in tax revenue.

5) There are ways the Town and Village government can generate revenue without raising taxes. I was working towards building a small (500k gallons per year) village-owned biodiesel plant that would produce fuel for the Village, Town, School District and SUNY, cutting their fuel costs by about a third and generating enough revenue for the Village that we may have been able to reduce Village taxes by up to 30%.

Anyway, my point is that I think it's possible to have a planning framework for New Paltz that is preventing development of wilderness and farms while accelerating development within designated areas around the village and hamlets while absolutely outlawing any more suburban sprawl I think this is the only sane way to build, and it's a way forward that meets the needs of environmentalists and developers while protecting both the wild and built environments people in New Paltz love.

Martin McPhillips said...

The Moriello Pool question has quickly become the search for cosmic planning and recreational justice question, I see.

New Paltz was and is an agricultural community, from the beginning.

It also became a one-industry company town via SUNY. That industry doesn't pay taxes but it generates, among other things, customers for local retail businesses and direct and indirect jobs.

New Paltz is now becoming, apparently, a NYC exurb (Crossroads is targeted precisely as a gateway for that process), which results in the bidding up of real estate and services. The most notable bidding up in the service category is in public education, where the costs and hence the taxes are out of control. (Putting that genie back in the bottle would require a revolution in thought and practice about education for which there is little will, or skill.)

Businesses (serious job-creating commercial enterprises) are not attracted to communities on the basis of "Gosh, we can really pay a lot of taxes if we locate there!" So if you want them here to create jobs you have to give them tax breaks, which means you don't get the full tax dollar, of course. You also have to make it easy for them, not try to micromanage every aspect of their physical operation.

Hence the irreducible dilemma of wanting more than you can pay for without bringing in a better class of taxpayer, which is precisely what the school system is accomplishing. The school system, not the planning boards and the local governments, is the primary determinant of the future of New Paltz, which will be high-tax exurban (suburban) sprawl, with or without the cosmic planning.

Lamenting property-based taxes, as Terence does, presupposes that other sources of revenue will magically appear in an essentially bankrupt state. Those other sources are tapped out too. Referencing the "other sources" that don't exist (a common enough local practice) distracts attention from the outrageous education costs by suggesting that the milked-out local cow can be supplemented, or even replaced, "by Albany" or "maybe the Feds." Not going to happen. At least not in any way that really matters to most taxpayers.

Now, back to Moriello Park: no one needs another "It's only $16 a year on the tax levy" addition to their annual rent for owning a home here. I hear that sort of thing from the school superintendant all the time: "it will only add $2 to the tax levy, blah, blah." Shopping for public amenities with other people's money makes the situation worse, not least of all because there are so many other causes and projects that will feel entitled to their "it's only $16."

Government causes these problems, it doesn't solve them.

As for recreation in New Paltz, there's plenty of it. Pools, mountains, trails, playing fields. The high school is teaming with publicly financed teams. Hasbrouck Park is a good indicator that there's sufficient recreation because it's way underused.

And Jason, if biodiesel is such a good business, by all means go into it and make a killing.

Anonymous said...

Jason is just preparing for his next mayoral run. He's throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. I personally think he is a good guy who is very community spirited and means well. However, that needs to be counter balanced with how naive he is about the real world and how things actually work. Perhaps being defeated in his reelection bid taught him to care a little more about views other than his own and to broaden his thinking. Maybe, someday he can be a good leader, but not anytime in the near future. He's got a lot of growing up to do.

Steve Greenfield said...

Wow. This has wandered all over the place from where KT started.

Property tax is ridiculous as a source of public revenue. It is impossible to plan effectively when revenue is from property tax. Toni thought Crossroads would net the Town money. Whether or not she calculated that correctly, it would cost the school district a fortune, and the same people who pay taxes to the Town pay school taxes too, so from the taxpayer's point of view, any gain to the Town would be drastically overrun by the increase in school taxes, at a substantial loss to every taxpayer. But the Town Board could have shown a small gain against their levy on existing property, and on election day they don't have to worry about being blamed for the actual substantial net loss to taxpayers, because they can shift that blame to the School Board, even though the School Board had no part in the decision that caused its costs to skyrocket. See, that's how it works, or rather, how it doesn't work.

Of course, there are other measurements people tend to overlook. Sure, we may pay a few pennies for the public library even if we don't use it, but having a public library makes this a desirable town and elevates property values, so when you need to borrow to send your kids to college, the collateral value of your house is way higher than when you bought it, and you can now finance college for your kids. Same for a good school system. We have one of the best in the country. That means young families are going to want to live here, and that means they'll bid up our home values. Now maybe that doesn't help people whose kids aren't going to go to college, or people like me who expect to never sell their house, but it sure helps our local builders and realtors, who pay taxes so long as their businesses do well. Having a good school is expensive, but having kids who grow up so poorly educated as to not have economically viable futures generates costs associated with delinquency and blight, and if those costs over time equal what would have been school costs, you haven't saved any money, and you've permanently harmed your town's kids.

The types of "platinum" public services associated with thriving businesses also tend to be derived from business practices that generate costs not usually subtracted from the supposed financial benefit. Oftentimes those externalities are burdening other communities (and someone else's thriving businesses are burdening yours). Around half the waste stream from my houshold comes from commercial circulars and other trash that I never ordered but can't keep from coming to my home. I have to burn gasoline constantly carrying it to the dump, and I have to pay taxes to operate a dump that's getting twice as much garbage as we local citizens generate ourselves. But the businesses that cause those expenses here in New Paltz don't have to pay for that, and they're also sustaining some other community's "platinum" services with the money they're not required to spend to clean up their unsolicited trash in New Paltz. And all too frequently they're providing those "platinum" services while dumping carcinogenic waste onto the very people who are picnicking in the platinum park, and/or all the communities downstream or downwind.

In other words, the math is incredibly complicated. Nobody, regardless of party affiliation or environmental acuity, makes planning decisions deliberately to lose money. But one way or another, money and quality of life are usually lost.

To be continued...

Steve Greenfield said...

continued from above (sorry, but this is a complicated issue, tied to other complicated issues, and won't be solved by sound bites)

If I were moving to this town, and someone proposed to me a choice between paying a mandatory $16 per year in taxes and another $150 to use my pool and park each summer, vs. paying just the mandatory $16 per year that bars me from using the pool and park, vs. $32 per year that lets me use the pool and park, it's pretty easy to see what I'd do. If I was sure I would never use the pool and park, I might prefer that pool/park membership go up to $300 per year and just leave me out of it. Of course then hardly anyone would use the pool/park, and we'd all be left wondering who was the genius who decided to spend taxes building it in the first place.

In the case of Moriello, the issue for the non-swimming public is the pavilion/picnic tables/barbecues, not the playground, of which we have a few from which to choose. They're only useful in the summer, yet because of the pointless and inexplicable change made in park entry when the new bath house was built for the pool, only paying pool members can now use a unique, seasonal public facility that no other park has -- a facility that was built with public funds and formerly available to the full public. At the very least we should all be able to agree that makes no sense. From there all that remains is trying to pick the most viable way to rectify it.

Kitty's idea of just unlocking the park's gate and locking the gate that goes from the pool to the park makes a lot of sense, and costs nothing, but pool staff refuses to do it (which in and of itself is an issue that has not been sufficiently explored). None of their excuses make any sense, let alone sufficient sense to deny the pavilion & picnic tables to the public that used to have it until just a couple of years ago when it was yanked away from them with no tax rebate for their loss. KT's idea also solves the problem, for just a few pennies more than we're already paying even if we're not pool members, with the side benefit of making everyone a pool member, which in turn will provide the public with greater utility of an underutilized public service and a greater return on all taxpayers' investment in having created it. That seems pretty sensible to me. If we can pursue other public policy accomplishments, and new revenue streams, by charging for parking (a legitimate charge, since parking lots reduce available recreation area in a public park, and not everyone drives), and raising fees for non-residents, then better still, because that helps accomplish those policy goals while nicely reducing the new $16 charge to open the pool and park to all residents -- possibly even to zero if the math is done correctly and adjusted over time as new data stemming from the new system reveals itself.

That's called management of public resources. It's what our elected officials and employees are getting paid to do -- in fact, it's nearly the entirety of what they're paid to do.

Billy said...

The pool is already being subsidized by taxpayers, especially ones who don't use it at all and families of two or three who pay the same $150 fee as families of five or six. You cannot keep shifting more to New Paltz's pathetically small tax base. This "for just pennies a day" approach is wonderful for marketing insurance, but it's disingenuous to use it here. The real question, as others raised, is what programs aren't going to get that $16/year? What ones should? Where does it end? Some towns don't have any public. You either build one in your back yard or join a private club. So $150 for the whole summer seems like a bargain to me. The pool is fine the way it is.