Friday, July 03, 2009

Pools ARE a Basic Service

I thought City Council--led by Laketa Cole--was off the mark with its mid-year budget correction. Some ideas (like having police park their cars an hour per shift) don't seem likely to save the city money, and others (like the new environmental bureaucracy, a first-of-its-kind proposal that adds to the city payroll when the city is furloughing its existing staff) simply prioritize the city's agenda incorrectly.

But Cole has taken far too much flak for her recent argument that city pools are a "basic service" of municipal government. Leading the derision is HamCo GOP Chair Alex Triantafilou, who twittered that he was "laughing" at the statement, which Cole made to the Enquirer's editorial board. GOP council members piled on, and Triantafilou has since added a blog post on the topic (featuring a picture of what must be Green Township's public pool).

The truth, however, is that Cole is absolutely correct. Public pools have long been a staple of municipal government services. In Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (2007), Jeff Wiltse writes that one of the first municipal pools was opened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1884. Municipal pools were a central battleground in the fight for desegregation in the United States during the middle part of the twentieth century.

If someone were to argue that public pools should be provided by the federal government, then that, of course, would be worthy of laughter. That's simply not a federal function. But municipalities provide services--police, fire, trash collection, and parks and pools--that don't come from national or state government. And cities have been providing pools since the nineteenth century. Public pools are not part of the FDR-era expansion of government. They're not even a service added by the City during the 1990's when the economy was strong and tax money was easy to find. Instead, from an historical standpoint, they are a core service of municipal government and woven into the fabric of our communities.

Laketa Cole is trying to protect a municipal service utilized primarily by the working poor and lower-middle class. While some of the more affluent Republicans in town may view that as worthy of laughter, their jocularity is not supported by reality or history. And their chronic disregard for the underserved and underrepresented may help explain why Republicans typically do pretty badly in City-wide elections.

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