Thursday, July 02, 2015

ON THE AVENUES: "Water on the brains: Much less for far more will keep us swimming in it."

ON THE AVENUES: "Water on the brains: Much less for far more will keep us swimming in it."

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

New Albany's River Run Family Water Park belatedly opened last week, and was formally dedicated yesterday by means of a mayoral re-election rally thinly disguised as a christening. By last night, several discussions were underway at Facebook and other social media sites as to the water park's value in a community context.

Memories are short, and the following was written by NAC co-editor Jeff Gillenwater. It was published here on May 20, 2013. Given that Jeff Gahan will be using the aquatics facility as a major component of his 2015 campaign platform, and depicting it as a precious gift bestowed upon loyal subjects, it seems only fitting to give over my column today to Gillenwater's matchless explanation of how Gahan might have claimed just as much credit for half the price -- because the money does indeed matter, whether Steve Sipes, Pat McLaughlin or any other Democratic functionary cares to discuss it or not, and they generally haven't.

This $9 million expenditure was not mentioned during Gahan's 2011 run for mayor, and once it was given the green light, there was no substantive public discussion of benefits versus cost.

Without such a discussion, how is the water park's ultimate value to be determined?

Answer: It isn't, and that's the whole point. In fact, River Run is a certified campaign issue in 2015, just not in the way Gahan assumes -- and Gillenwater explained why two whole years ago.

I'm delighted to let him do it again. Take it away, Jeff.

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Water on the brains: Much less for far more will keep us swimming in it.

Since the serious prospect of a new municipal swimming pool or aquatic center was made public in New Albany, several people, though not elected officials or most media types, have issued numerous, relevant questions.

Roger did a fine job, for instance, of asking how or why an aquatics-based project fits with quality of life justifications, particularly when more pressing quality issues, some of which are much less expensive to address and more costly not to, stand mostly ignored.

Likewise, Sam Schad and his group asked why, with such a huge expenditure, we can't at least get increased utility from such a facility if we're going to build it anyway without the sort of considerations Roger suggests.

Somewhere in-between the two, I mused that whether the expenditure would be worth it or not would depend largely on what was ultimately and comprehensively delivered-- hardly a profound concept but one too readily dismissed by too many current decision makers. Given the vast amount of money then proposed and now doubly approved, I foolishly held out hope that council voices would rightfully point out that, for the price, we should be able to produce an aquatic center and a competitive lap pool and the reclamation of our two-way streets and perhaps some other potential initiatives.

Why did/do I think that? Because, apparently unlike some voluntarily voiceless council members, I bothered with a smidgeon of research into how comparable cities have handled comparable situations.

Marion, Ohio, is one such city. Its population of just under 37,000 is almost exactly the same as New Albany's. Marion, too, had an aging pool - a very common predicament nationwide - in a setting of roughly the same land space as Camille Wright: one that needed either substantial rehabilitation or replacement if the city decided to maintain a facility at all.

Conversation in Marion was somewhat similar to ours here as well.  Like New Albany, there were discussions of the overall usefulness of such a facility and whether or not it would cash flow. Totally unlike New Albany, there was even legitimate debate about proposed costs. Finally, Marion's city council overrode a cost driven mayoral veto to build an aquatic center, depicted below via text and images from Marion Online and the aquatic center's Facebook page. It opened last summer, 2012, and has since won a state award for recreation facilities.


"The new center will feature heated water, Lazy River, Floating Lilly Pads, Zero-depth entry, 25 foot Racing Slides, a 6 foot Family Slide, a Water Play set with a bucket that dumps 150 gallons of water, 25 meter 6 lane pool with a high dive and low dive and a separate baby pool."

It indeed appears to be a very nice facility that's been well received by the community. 

Here's the rub: That debate about cost that led to both a mayoral veto and a council override? It was a fight over whether to spend $2.4 million or $3.5 million. The council favored the 3.5 and won. 

All the above- much of it strikingly familiar - was built within the past couple of years for less than half of even the most conservative cost estimate provided by the administration and approved by the council for New Albany's impending center. Assuming we're not purposefully overspending for nefarious political purposes, New Albany could have something very similar and $4 - 5.5 million left over to address other quality of life needs without spending any more than what's already been approved.

Making that possible, though, requires a majority of council members who think beyond mayoral and Estopinal suggestions and consider such basic, comparative due diligence a part of their job. In terms of what our council has thus far publicly offered up relative to aquatic center merits, the one direct comparison offered here - easily gleaned from about 30 minutes of individual research - unfortunately represents more than our council members have collectively put forth over several months. 

The quantity and quality of discourse around numerous "park" projects has been so low and the prices so high that, if I didn't know some of the folks involved personally, I'd probably just assume they were receiving substantial kickbacks for such a dubious (lack of) effort. I don't believe that, but the lack of diligence has been egregious enough to make it a plausible explanation to fill an obvious void.

One would think (or at least I did) that the public embarrassment of a $750,000 downtown pocket park with less utility and flexibility than a $200,000 park could've offered and/or tens of thousands so casually given to a Bicentennial Commission who clearly told council members they had "no idea" how the money would be used before being granted funding should have been sufficient cause for a slightly more thoughtful approach in considering the aquatics expenditure. But, then, I already admitted to being foolishly optimistic.

If any of the council "yes" voters would like to explain exactly which portion of our proposed aquatic center justifies multiple, additional millions as compared to what we can plainly observe here, the floor is open. It's been open for months. Until any such rational, evidence-based explanation materializes, however, "rubber-stamp" criticisms will ring truer than usual for a group who, via the intelligence of its individual members, ought to know much better. 

As an overall experience, our current council group has in ways been even more frustrating than some of the lesser moments of the Kochert-led era that served as my introduction to New Albany politics. During that time, a distinct lack of intellectual capital coalesced with an abundance of insider bullying to render capacity so low as to substantially limit both expectations and actual potential. 

But that's not the case here. What we have now is an example of "won't" rather than "can't" in which acquiring council seats has somehow rendered usually talented people into an amorphous mass of counterproductive group decline. The sum is less than its parts. No one is consistently demonstrating their capacity for good questions, so we're settling for lousy, injudicious answers and losing badly.

So far, a bunch of really smart people have managed to haphazardly waste millions in public funding without so much as addressing some fundamental quality of life and prioritization issues. If such behavior continues unchecked by any number of council members quite capable of checking it, future councils and the city at large will have a much more difficult time responding to those issues as we try to dig ourselves out of holes already dug, some quite literally, at places like Bicentennial Park and the aquatics center. 

As a citizen and voter, I've always felt it important to extend at least some effort toward helping ensure that we elect as talented a group of leaders as possible. This council, however, with its inexplicable yet seemingly automatic brainpower off switch - apparently activated by the doors at city hall - is calling that premise into question. 

An unexamined "yes" is no better and sometimes worse than an ignorant "no" in that it actively reduces opportunities rather than just passively ignores them. In short, all this "no-brainer" malarkey when it comes to water features is costing us a lot of money that could easily be better spent but which we'll never get back. 

We've seen several frighteningly unthinking financial decisions from this council lately that, taken together, set quite a negative precedent that should be and, since no aquatics contracts have been let, can be immediately corrected before yet another boondoggle becomes a part of their permanent record.

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Recent columns:

June 25: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: Red scarf, white shirt and San Miguel beer (2012).

June 18: ON THE AVENUES: These 10 definitions will help you speak local politics like a native.

June 11: ON THE AVENUES: This is Dan Coffey, New Albany’s quintessential Democrat.

June 4: ON THE AVENUES: Dan Coffey speaks for Jeff Gahan and the Democratic Party … unless they say otherwise.

May 28: ON THE AVENUES: The last of the summer beer.

May 21: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: "I Just Want to Know, Can I Park Here Somewhere?”

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