Making Rye’s Public Pool More Public

By Howard Husock

Pullquote: The current model at Rye Golf Club makes it difficult for Rye residents of modest means to use the pool.

Scarsdale and Great Neck are, like Rye, among the country’s most affluent and desirable suburbs. All boast outstanding school systems and high property values. But, as the summer season reminds us, there’s one notable difference among them: the cost of admission to a city-owned swimming pool.

A season family pass to the Scarsdale pool complex is $428. A similar pass to the Great Neck pool: $400. The price in Rye: $1,450.

What is considered to be a basic recreation service in hundreds of municipalities around the U.S. is, for Rye residents, what can only be described as a luxury good.

The reason, of course, is that the Rye municipal pool is not part of the City’s Recreation Department, supported, in part by the general tax base. Instead, it’s part of Rye Golf Club, the complex which combines a pool, golf course, and the Whitby Castle restaurant, accurately described by Rye Golf Club Commission Chair Patricia Geoghegan as “semi-private”, notwithstanding its being owned by the City of Rye. Once, indeed, a private club — similar to the city’s membership beachfront private clubs — the significant fees charged to those who would be Rye Golf Club members reflects the fact that the club is expected to be a self-supporting “enterprise” fund, whose costs are defrayed by revenues.

It is, to say the least, an unusual model — and one worth re-examining. Not only does the current model make it difficult for Rye residents of modest means to use the pool, but fees generated by members have to do more than cover pool costs, they must cover administrative costs for both pool and golf course, as well as a service virtually no other municipalities have: a money-losing restaurant in Whitby Castle.

Some numbers. According to the most recent figures (2015) posted on the City of Rye website, the pool took in $1.1 million in revenue, while incurring but $645,000 in costs. For its part, the golf course membership fees realized $3.2 million in revenue while incurring but 573,000 in expenses. It all seems like a good deal, on the surface. But the apparent profits of each do not take into account administrative costs that cover both, nor the operations of Whitby Castle. When the books were closed, the Club, overall, showed net income of $252,000 — which meant that both the pool and golf course members were subsidizing the restaurant, which showed a $92,000 operating loss. Pool members, similarly, were helping to pay off bonds floated to renovate the Castle building.

That the Golf Club, in contrast to past years, is a professionally-run enterprise overseen by high-minded, public-spirited citizens is without doubt. Nonetheless, the situation raises a number of questions.

Might a lower fee at the pool or golf course actually generate more revenue, especially if residents of the overall Town of Rye could be considered residents for this purpose? Might lower fees make those facilities more inclusive — a goal worth our concern at a time when some $9 million in County funds are to be expended to renovate the Playland Pool in order to offer what County Legislator Catherine Parker has described as a need for an option for those of lower income?

Should general taxpayer funds help to support the pool? Commission Chair Geoghegan asserts that that would be “unfair to the general taxpayer” — who, of course, might not use the pool? But the general taxpayer supports the schools, used by a minority of households, as well as other recreational facilities such as the Disbrow Park playing fields.

Finally, it’s worth being frank about the demographics of outdoor swimming in the City of Rye. A pool charge, which is prohibitively high for seniors on a fixed income or lower-income households with children, means that there is a lack of racial and ethnic diversity at the pool. One looks at the range of swimming options of Rye and Town of Rye citizens — from Playland to Oakland Beach, to the Golf Club to the private beach clubs — and one is tempted to observe that a sort of exclusionary swimming system is in place. Chairman Geoghegan observes that lowering fees and relying, in part, on general taxpayer fund support would, “destroy the club atmosphere.”

But a good case can be made that no municipality should be in the business of countenancing public facilities which carry the whiff of exclusivity. If Scarsdale and Great Neck can provide high-quality, well-maintained facilities while charging lower fees, Rye should at least consider doing the same.