Janette McIntyre's recent editorial branding the City's budget reduction plan as a travesty deserves a response. McIntyre levies criticism for keeping pools closed and making cuts at the expense of the City's children. She asks why other areas aren't being cut or City employees furloughed.
Identifying over $6.6 million in budget reductions brought about by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, was an extensive process that took weeks of discussion with City department directors, staff and included mayors and city managers from around the state. My reduction philosophy is to combine one-time purchase delays, staff and program reductions, reductions in subsidies, delays in Capital Improvement Program (CIP) projects, and a one-time use of reserve funds.
The end result is a reduction plan that puts forth extensive reductions in general revenue departments. Among them: More than $2 million (Capital Improvement Fund), $1.5 million (Public Works), $1.4 million (Parks/Recreation); $815,000 (Police), $324,000 (Library); $317,000 (Community Development), $282,000 (Fire), $132,000 (Mayor/Human Resources/IT, Attorney Offices), $98,000 (Finance), $94,000 in subsidies (Dahl, Journey, Senior Centers, Arts, etc.),
The decision to not open the three City pools this summer and to keep the Swim Center and Ice Arena closed through September 1 as part of the Parks/Rec reductions was a tough decision. Providing quality of life amenities in our community - to people of all ages - is important.
But it comes at a cost.
Even in a good year, the City's pools cost local taxpayers $383,000 above what is received from admission and concessions. That's an average of $5,000 per day for two and a half months.
It's all about the finances. It's hard to justify keeping our pools open when faced with a multi-million dollar reduction in general fund revenues due to expected losses in sales and property taxes. Contrary to McIntyre’s assertion, furloughs were previously enacted in our Finance Department and Library prior to those at the Civic Center, in all, impacting several dozen city employees.
The decision to keep pools closed is a financial one, and is not based on COVID-19 safety measures.
At a time when our departments are being asked to make dramatic reductions, as City employees are furloughed, as the entire community continues to grapple with COVID-19 impacts. It doesn't make financial sense to open the pools simply "for the sake of our children's safety, fun and enjoyment" as stated by McIntyre. Not when it comes at such a financial loss.
McIntyre suggests slashing the Journey Museum. The Journey, like the Dahl and other programs receiving a City subsidy, are already listed for a reduction. But I do find it interesting that McIntyre seeks to save some recreational opportunities at the expense of other recreational/cultural programs.
McIntyre suggests bad management might be the culprit for the pools not breaking even. In the government recreation business, the goal is to recover 30-40% of the expenses. That’s why there are no private pools and government is left to provide this service. To recover these expenses fully, admission prices would be raised by about $11 per visit over the current fee of $6, plus, additional staff would be required to ensure compliance with social distancing standards - driving the operational costs higher and attendance lower.
By the way, nearly all South Dakota cities have made the same decisions on pools this year, for the same reasons as Rapid City.
McIntyre points to stopping the construction on the Arena to satisfy the needed budget reductions. The new Arena is not funded through the general fund and stopping the project would have grave financial consequences for the taxpayers.
In a 2018 scientifically-valid community survey, City residents were asked if they could allocate $1,000 of their tax dollars, how much would they spend on various City services. Police services, street repair, fire services and snow removal were the top four of 14 choices. Recreation facilities and programs were listed far down on the list at ninth out of 14.
That same survey asked respondents how they would prioritize spending. A safe, healthy and skilled community along with economic stability and growth were the top two strategic goals listed by residents. Coming in last of the seven was having outstanding recreational and cultural opportunities.
Cities like ours should do what we can to provide a great quality of life experience for our residents and visitors. But at a time when we must find millions of dollars to balance the books for the rest of the year, spending a third of a million dollars for a couple months of poolside fun doesn't make sense.
McIntyre is right that these reductions will affect our children. It will affect our entire community. But we must spend responsibly and not doing so would impact the lives of our residents - including our children - for years to come.
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