They Are Closing The Public Pools In Troy, NY

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I am from Troy, NY, what one writer calls "a small American City."   As it is the home of Uncle Sam, it has some claim to being a quintessentially American City.

 

As it stands now, both public pools in a place called Troy, NY will be closed this summer.

 

It's no surprise, Troy just approved a 14.5% increase to its property taxes, after the Democrat Mayor, Patrick Madden, first proposed to the City Council (the majority of whom are Republicans) a 28.2% tax increase.  All of this came after a 100% re-valuation of the entire inventory of property to full market value, which is an expensive process designed to lower tax rates.

 

The pools (there are two, one in Lansingburgh/North Troy; and one in South Troy, formerly, there was another one in Prospect Park on Congress Street toward the East Side of the City) are old and not habitually well maintained.  Apparently, a lot of maintenance has habitually been deferred to save money in the current budget, something that also apparently plagues the City's water system.  Where money is tight, and it always is in aging industrial cities in the Northeast, the pools were obvious targets.

 

This is especially true where the pools tend to serve less affluent members of the community.  Despite a few people appearing at a City Council meeting and about 300 signatures on an on-line petition (in a City of around 50,000), that is not a constituency necessarily known for attending public meetings, or even necessarily voting.

 

There are a couple of larger points that can be drawn from this, in my opinion.

 

The first is that both Republicans and Democrats recognize the limitations of reforms that "break the rice bowls" of more affluent and influential people. 

 

In Troy, Democrats are unwilling to spend public money to rehabilitate a public accommodation that one local politician described on local radio as serving "the poorest of the poor."  (To his credit, that politician, a non-Democrat, supported spending the money on the pools).

 

At a national level, we see similar things with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("PPACA"), which lets health insurance companies sell narrow-network Medicaid Managed Care Plans with a high deductible slapped on as "Bronze Plans" in the Exchanges for a hefty premium.  This was done instead of expanding the use of Health Savings Accounts ("HSAs") or non-Employer-based group coverage through mechanisms like Multi Employer Welfare Arrangements ("MEWAs'), such as Professional Employer Organizations ("PEOs"), which would have done almost everything PPACA does for the consumer at a lower cost.

 

In the situation in Troy, we also see a bit different take on the issue of centralization versus decentralization than is usually presented.

 

Troy had three pools and now has two.  The pools were perceived as local, rather than city-wide, amenities.  (As I recall, they were seen somewhat as "turf.")   People from South Troy might feel strongly about "their pool," as people from North Troy/Lansingburgh might feel strongly about "their" pool, while people from the rest of the City (like me) might have no interest at all.

 

This is in contrast to neighboring cities, like Watervliet (across the river to the west and once known as "West Troy"), which has one pool, which people from across that City, of all socio-economic backgrounds, all use. 

 

An attempt to close that pool would cause an outcry, not only from the parents of children and teenagers who use the pool now, but from older people my age, who have fond memories of "hanging out" there with their friends back in the 1960s and '70s and who may have met their spouse there.

 

Generally, it is better to de-centralize things, so that people can pay for the things that benefit them and can have a greater degree of control over those things that affect them.

 

However, politically, it is often better to have things that are central that everyone (affluent or not) can use and care about.  (On a national, level Social Security has been more like the pool in Watervliet than the pools in Troy.) This makes such programs less apt to be victim to fiscal shortfalls but also make meaningful and necessary reform more difficult.

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, should cities be in the business of running pools (or municipal golf courses that Troy also has)?

 

Mayor Madden is taking the position that Troy's "not-for-profit partners" (like the YMCA, YWCA and Boys' Clubs) can take up a lot of the slack.  The Ys and the Boys' Clubs had always run free or low cost aquatics programs in the summers.  Possibly, getting support from people who grew up in Troy and used the public pools could expand and "routinize" this to replace the pools.  This is an example of something management gaon Peter Drucker used to talk about as privatizing non-core government functions into what he called "the Social Sector."

 

However, as the controversy over the Troy Pools demonstrates, the transition between these kinds of services being under the rubric of government and being part of the "social sector" is neither sure nor undramatic.   

 

 

 

           

Comments

Dino Manalis Added Feb 22, 2017 - 4:43pm
Most municipal expenses should be paid with state revenues, because property taxes are anti-property rights; anti-development; discriminate against poor school districts; and prevent poor and middle class families and seniors from owning property.  Locally, we should pay something, but property taxes have become overly burdensome.
John Minehan Added Feb 22, 2017 - 5:08pm
Mr. Manalis,
 
That ties in with my thought on centralization v. de-centralization.
 
Ideally, local property taxes would be more responsive to local political pressure but your comment (and the 14.5% hike after a 100% re-val to FMV, which does not come cheap, mentioned here) indicate that may not be happening. 
 
What has California's experience over the last 29 years with Proposition 13 been like?
John Minehan Added Feb 22, 2017 - 6:02pm
' they closed the only public pool in town as well as most of the libraries...all public services suffered greatly from it, police, fire, you name it.'
 
I believe you still live in CA, did it ever come to an equilibrium?  Did the "Social sector" replace these formerly-government-run amenities?
 
Did this also happen is very affluent places like Toluca Lake or Palm Springs?  
 
As CA goes, so goes the nation . . . about 40 years later.  (Watch out for the Med Flies, I guess.)
John Minehan Added Feb 22, 2017 - 6:37pm
It's odd, if you have things that benefit affluent (or more relatively affluent) people they seem to be more politically secure (as with the pools in Watervliet versus Troy).
 
It sounds like CA still hasn't figured out how to make Proposition 13 work . . .  after 39 years.
John Minehan Added Feb 22, 2017 - 6:53pm
No, it is more like the fact that Watervliet has one pool and EVERYONE uses it. 
 
People from Watervliet, rich and poor, of all ethnicities and faiths, from Watervliet will tell you about how they met their spouse there when they were in high school or the good times they had hanging out with their friends there when they 12 or 13.
 
The pools in Troy were regional (maybe neighborhood, but functionally broader) so they did not have as universal a patronage.  The Boys Clubs (one in Troy and another in a part of Troy called Lansingburgh) and the YMCA and YWCA were more like that.
 
That's why I think the pool in Watervliet is like Social Security; more politically secure BUT much harder to reform or abandon.    
Ric Wells Added Feb 22, 2017 - 9:02pm
John if I remember correctly Troy had the same issue of closing the pools about 7 or 10 years ago. Didn't the Troy Record start a fundraising campaign for private funds to keep the pools open. I think the city editor started the movement. First name was Jim. I used to submit articles to that paper and they ran them.
Michael Burke Added Feb 22, 2017 - 9:24pm
Prop 13 really did devastate the public schools in California. In many ways, much of California's fiscal woes of the past few decades have been the result of trying to accommodate Prop 13's effects. All kinds of other bill payers have had to kick in to keep the public schools operating (in some cases under court order over class sizes)--it's one of the reasons, for example, that UC Berkeley tuition is high--UCs used to be all but free when I was in college.
 
OTOH, my mother, who's owned her house in San Diego since 1955, pays just over $800 a year in property taxes. The last time we had it valued, as we put it on the rental market to pay for her assisted living, it was worth around $800,000. 3br, 2 bath house built in 1950, 1300 sq feet. Prop 13 benefits older, stable residents, while screwing newer arrivals. Guess who votes? Old people.
 
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote once that taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society. That line is engraved on the IRS building in Washington. While I think your Troy examples suggest a system run amok, it is hard to argue that Prop 13 has not had a deleterious effect on the state of California.
Ric Wells Added Feb 22, 2017 - 9:28pm
When I lived there my school tax bill was about 4x higher than my property tax bill. Does that still hold true?
Billy Roper Added Feb 23, 2017 - 9:21am
Troy is 17% black and 8% Mestizo. The spray pool at Frear Park is in a higher crime region. It's probably the only shower a lot of them get. Why not use taxpayer funds to build a public pool by The Sage Colleges. That's a nice area. LOL
John Minehan Added Feb 23, 2017 - 11:37am
"I almost forgot about Prop. 13's effect on public schools. Several schools were closed down and the students crammed into others. I went from having about 25-30 students in each class to easily twice that number. The teachers spent more time being ringmasters and game wardens than educators."
 
"Prop 13 really did devastate the public schools in California. In many ways, much of California's fiscal woes of the past few decades have been the result of trying to accommodate Prop 13's effects. All kinds of other bill payers have had to kick in to keep the public schools operating (in some cases under court order over class sizes)--it's one of the reasons, for example, that UC Berkeley tuition is high--UCs used to be all but free when I was in college."
 
"When I lived there my school tax bill was about 4x higher than my property tax bill. Does that still hold true?"
 
I think this is the real heart of the matter.
 
American K-12, universal, public education based on property taxes does not work.  It is ruinously expensive, as with Mr. Wells's school tax bill.  It produces, at best, mediocre results for the money.     It does so in an often trying or absurd way, per Mr. Hartman.  Finally, per Mr. Burke, attempts to reform it often make matters worse.
 
After about two decades wondering around in the non-clinical side of American HealthCare System, I have some workable ideas about how to make the system better (as well as an understanding of why those approaches have not been generally applied).  I think that is one of the two most important public policy issues facing the country.
 
The other area is education and on that "I've got nothing."  (Perhaps because I'm not involved in it.)
 
Private schools (in my experience, the Catholic ones in Troy in the 1960s and '70s) do a great job, but are not really "scalable."  (The Catholic ones have become very expensive due to the lack of novitiates in the teaching orders, e.g., Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St.Joseph, LaSallian or Edmund Rice Christian Brothers, etc.)
 
For profit companies have tried to do this (particularly, The Edison Project, that [briefly] ran the Hartford Public Schools)  The major problem with that approach is that public education, even if you apply sound management principals, isn't especially profitable.
 
Vouchers seem to be an answer, but you run right into the issue of private schools not being "scalable" and the fact that they won't take everyone.  The worst case outcome is that you turn the public schools into the pedagogical version of the Troy Public Pools, an amenity for the "poorest of the poor" that will be perennially on the chopping block.
 
Charters are probably part of the answer (there may be a "Unified Field Theory" in Physics, but there probably isn't one in Public Policy;there tends not to be "THE ANSWER"), but depending on how they are organized they can make the rest of the public school system into the Troy Public Pools.
 
On-line is probably another workable approach, with things like the Khan Academy. 
 

  
John Minehan Added Feb 23, 2017 - 11:44am
"John if I remember correctly Troy had the same issue of closing the pools about 7 or 10 years ago. Didn't the Troy Record start a fundraising campaign for private funds to keep the pools open. I think the city editor started the movement. First name was Jim. I used to submit articles to that paper and they ran them."
 
Paul Vandenburgh, who owns AM 1300 (and who grew up in Lansingburgh of modest means and used the pool in the 'Burgh as a child in the 1950s and '60s) is talking about doing that now.
 
But I wonder if setting up a not for profit to fund aquatics programs at the Ys and the Boys' Clubs might not be the more sustainable long term approach.
 
If this was an issue about a decade ago, it has certainly cropped up again and a new approach might be in order. 
John Minehan Added Feb 23, 2017 - 11:45am
"The spray pool at Frear Park is in a higher crime region."
 
Ah, the old neighborhood!  That is where I grew up.  It is nicer know than it was when I was growing up.
Ric Wells Added Feb 23, 2017 - 11:49am
Paul and Fred Dickerson could probably strong arm enough politicians to get it done. Is Jim Tedisco involved. 
John Minehan Added Feb 23, 2017 - 11:56am
"Why not use taxpayer funds to build a public pool by The Sage Colleges. That's a nice area. LOL"
 
The Sage campus abuts the Taylor Apartments, a fairly well-maintained and stable high-rise housing project. 
John Minehan Added Feb 23, 2017 - 12:02pm
"Is Jim Tedisco involved."
 
I don't know.  It is outside his NYS Senate District. 
John Minehan Added Feb 23, 2017 - 1:29pm
"In California, another way cities raise funds is by the so-called Mello-Roos tax, which is usually applied to new homeowners in new and/or growing communities."
 
That is illegal in NYS as "Howdy, Neighbor" or "Welcome, Neighbor" assessment.  In fact it is unconstitutional under the NYS Constitution to assess property at greater than FMV.
 
This is part of what lead to the movement to assess al property at FMV to drop tax rates per $1,000.00 of assessed valuation.  
Thomas Napers Added Feb 24, 2017 - 2:50am
In light of the fact they raised property taxes, it should come as a huge surprise that there is still no money to keep the pools open.  There is one reason public pools close and property taxes are raised…unions.  Public sector unions are chewing up municipal resources and until someone says “no” they will continue to do so.  In a liberal area like New York, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
John Minehan Added Feb 24, 2017 - 2:53pm
Having poor people have access to amenities like swimming pools is not a bad thing.  On the other hand, it might not be something government should be doing.
 
It is the kind of question that is worth asking even where"[p]ublic sector unions are . . . [not] . . . chewing up municipal resources." 
John Minehan Added Feb 24, 2017 - 3:23pm
"I guess my point is that when some things close down, other things open up."
 
Big point about life in general, that.