Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Should Cities Fund Rec Centers?

I live in Eagle Mountain, which has about 20,000 residents. Last year around this time city officials started circulating a plan to build a rec center. The closest center to Eagle Mountain is in Lehi, about a 20 minute drive away. Having our own center has been a strong desire of many residents, and many elected officials, for some time. However, when the city's plan to finance one was made known last year, there was strong opposition based on economic issues. So strong, in fact, that the city put all plans on hold. I'm sure that it being an election year had nothing to do with that decision.

I attended some of last year's meetings regarding the proposed rec center. It was stated that no private enterprise would build a facility like those that cities build. The closest thing we would have would be a Gold's Gym type workout center. But anything with swimming facilities and climbing walls and senior citizen areas etc. would never be built without public funding. There is just no money to be made in that area, we were told.

Since then our pro-rec center mayor was reelected and we added a strong proponent of the center to the city council, so it comes as no surprise that the idea is anything but dead. However, what strikes me about this issue is that the economic concerns voiced by the public last year have not really gone away, and even if they had for most people, there will always be some who have economic problems. If it's unjust to impose higher taxes when everyone is feeling threatened by the economy, then isn't it unjust if even one homeowner feels threatened?

So it would seem that raising taxes to pay for a rec center hinges on the question of whether a rec center is necessary for the common good. In this vein, I've heard it compared to city parks. Parks are paid for and maintained by public funds - everyone is taxed for them and they consistently need public funding to remain solvent. No one seems to have any problem with city parks which are clearly recreational facilities, so why would there be opposition to an indoor recreation facility?

While that argument seems logical, I'm not sold. Racquetball courts and family swimming centers would be great. My family would certainly love it. But I remain unconvinced that it is something that falls within an acceptable use of tax revenue.


Charles D said...

If the people of community want their government to build a recreation center with their tax money, why is that not acceptable? Does a community have to have absolute unanimity on each expenditure by their government to avoid the charge that some taxpayers are having their property (tax payments) confiscated to support some other people's wishes?

Cameron said...

Because "their tax money" isn't all theirs. It's their neighbors' too. And if your action adds to your neighbors' property tax bill and potentially forcing them to move, then you'd better have a darn good reason to do so. And I'm not convinced that a swimming pool is a good enough reason.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question.

Should government build a soccer stadium for recreation? Should it build a mall because it increases tax revenue? Should it build a movie theater because it provides entertainment for the people? Should it build anything that benefits the people? How about an amusement park? People get a lot of exercise there and enjoy themselves.

You probably see where I'm going with this. I don't think government should build rec centers, golf courses, soccer stadiums, or anything of the kind. If people want things things badly enough, then the private sector will supply them. If they won't build them, then obviously demand is not high enough and, therefore, government, should it choose to build them, will be subsidizing much of the cost.

Charles D said...

We have a very good way to prevent our local governments from raising taxes to build amusement parks or, more realistically, stadiums for privately owned professional sports teams. If they do it, we vote them out of office and shut down whatever project they started.

There is no such thing as a public good that every single citizen supports, so there will always be someone who is upset that their taxes are going up just to support a rec center, or a new elementary school, or whatever else the community needs. If the community needs a recreation center for its youth, no private company will create one since there's not any money to be made in doing so. Besides, a privately built facility will be required to charge admission thus shutting out the very young people who most need access to the center.

Cameron said...

If someone loses their house because of the rec center, it's a little late to vote the bums out.

The fact that there will always be someone who is upset that their taxes are going up to support a rec center is the very reason why taxes shouldn't go towards a rec center. As fun as they are, a rec center is most decidedly not a 'need'.

Moreover, Utah's city financed and subsidized rec centers still charge its citizens to use them.

Charles D said...

It's hard to imagine that the kind of small tax increase that would be required to fund a rec center would mean the difference between being able to keep one's house or not. Many states have programs that reduce property tax obligations for the elderly on fixed incomes, so that need not be an issue.

Why should the majority of people in a community be prevented from providing a facility that they see as a great asset to their families and the town at large because a minority objects to a small tax increase? If the local government gets profligate, they will be voted out.

Cameron said...

So all heil to the benevolent majority then? It's ok as long a 50.1% approve?

There are a significant number of houses in my town and in my own neighborhood who are in foreclosure or near to it. Adding any additional monthly expense would only worsen the situation. And adding that expense just so that people have a cool swimming pool and workout room seems uncharitable to me.

Charles D said...

Something certainly needs to be done about the foreclosure crisis, but one way to help is to create jobs in the community and building and operating a rec center would do that. Cutting back on services in order to give folks a tax break would hurt the local economy by increasing unemployment, not to mention the ill effects caused by the reduction in services.

The 50.1% canard is a bit specious. First of all, no local government is likely to enact an optional tax increase if nearly half the voters are opposed. That's a really good recipe for losing elections. If the rec center turns out to be a dud, a future government can close it, but if it becomes a real boon to the community, even you might come to appreciate it.

Cameron said...

If the rec center is put on the ballot, then all it needs is a majority vote to pass. Once it passes, there's long term bonds to pay for and tax rates to raise. Saying that we can just vote out the city officials completely ignores the fact that a rec center is a very long term commitment.

Jobs creation is an interesting argument. But say my neighbor does not work in construction. Is it ok for his property taxes to rise in order supply someone else with a job? Why don't we raise taxes to build an amusement park. That would create jobs. Or we could build a restaurant. Or an accounting firm. Or a soccer stadium. Or all sorts of things that theoretically would create jobs.

Who gets to decide which jobs merit creation? And at whose expense?