Friday, June 14, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Which of these things is not like the other?

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One of our favorite childhood games was one contained in the old Highlights magazine.  It was entitled, “Which of these things is not like the other?” Which of these things does not belong?  It also became a song and instructional illustration on the Sesame Street children’s TV show, as well.

We keep shaking our head wondering if anyone on Burlington’s city council recognizes the total disconnect between the budget they were being asked to adopt this week – with a huge tax rate increase for property owners in the city – and the ongoing list of exorbitant, largely frivolous, projects that keep being presented to the city council for which millions of those tax dollars will be needed. (But for projects not, yet, even in the budget.)

We would have thought the council members might have laughed some of the ideas out of the council chambers – absurd, ridiculously expensive, and totally nonessential as a city service – but it appears they may actually be seriously entertaining them.

The latest came before the council Monday night during a so-called work session.

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There Davis Montgomery, a former Elon alderman now employed by the city, came to present a fantabulous proposal for gobs of pickleball courts.

The total price tag for the gaggle of recreation department improvements was $5.3 million.  (That’s just the tab for the projects presented at this meeting. More on previous extravagances in a moment.)

The idea was unveiled modestly enough: some upgrades to the city’s existing pickleball facilities at Fairchild Park.

But the idea ballooned into a new canopy for the tennis center at City Park and a massive (17-court) pickleball court complex at City Park (how many pickleball courts are enough?), with an additional parking lot for 43 cars.

Now Montgomery was proud of what we consider the highly ill-considered proposal he advanced, claiming, “I think it is fair that no one would have a facility close to what we’re going to present here tonight.”

That’s probably because no other municipal leaders have been as gullible as the Burlington city officials who put it on the agenda or the city council who sat through the presentation.

“If you look regionally, from Charlotte down to Raleigh,” Montgomery continued, “there would not be another facility the size of this one, which makes it attractive when we target the U.S. Pickleball Association.”

Oh, yeah, that’s what we really need: the U.S. Pickleball Association to have tournaments in Burlington on new, taxpayer-funded pickleball courts.

We’ve noticed that the latest fad – which they must teach at various government seminars somewhere – is to claim that millions of dollars in taxpayer funds for some extraneous project will lead to wonderful new revenue sources for the city.

So building a massive pickleball complex would entice tournaments and other revenue-generating events at city facilities?  Do keep in mind, by the way, that when those events are hogging the courts, local residents (who paid for them) won’t be able to play.

But here’s the real rub: “making money” is not one of the fundamental purposes of city government.  It is supposed to be providing “essential services,” which in our view should be concentrated on public safety (police and fire) and other basic services (trash collection, water and sewer), good roads, and sidewalks.

But we’ve noticed a disturbing trend in recent years.  More and more money in local governments – in Burlington and elsewhere – is being diverted into so-called “recreation” programs, or at least the “recreation” department line item in each budget.

And, even then, the trend has been to get away from parks or other programs that serve the most people to spending more and more millions of dollars on niche activities that serve fewer and fewer residents.

Within the past few months, the city council has sat through presentations on other, equally fantastic (and wholly unnecessary) ideas:

Oh, let’s spend $3.6 million to convert three soccer fields at Springwood Park into Astroturf fields.

Why?  Again, city officials think, or at least said, they can make some money.

“The staff is recommending three fields for a variety of reasons,” assistant city manager Rachel Kelly told the city’s decision-makers back in April: “the increased availability of field use; making this a destination for tournaments – we’ve been told that three fields is a game changer for being able to host tournaments – putting us on par with neighboring communities as far as the offering of artificial turf, increased revenue potential, and decreased maintenance burden.”

Did you catch that motive? “Increased revenue potential.” A real “game-changer”?

Yeah, right. What are the chances the city can recover $3.6 million from these fields – in this lifetime?

Notice also the absence of any mention that having tournaments again eliminates local individuals or teams from using the taxpayer-funded facility.

Likely to be equally extravagant was the idea floated earlier this spring of having the city build a skate park. No price tag has yet been attached to that, but we’ve seen other municipalities (which Burlington apparently wants to mimic) that have spent millions of dollars on the same sort of folly. (And that’s not counting the potential increased insurance liability for the city; young skateboarders don’t always want to wear the regulation helmets.)

The council already agreed (last year) to  squander $2 million on a so-called “entertainment venue” – another recreation department boondoggle – at Fairchild ballpark.

But in addition to questioning the fundamental tenet of trying to have the city “make money” off of these questionable expenditures, we’d raise an equally important point: what’ll you bet they never make a profit or even cover the initial expense?

We’ll wager that these new-fangled recreation ideas will not only not be revenue generators for the city (certainly not covering their costs), they’ll end up costing taxpayers even more to operate and maintain – extra staff to oversee and provide maintenance, future repair bills, etc.  It’s a never-ending circuit – all at taxpayer expense. And, for what? Frivolous, unnecessary expenses.

Only in government.

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