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DLC | E-newsletter | July 9, 2010
Keeping the Swimming Pools Open

Founding father, patron of the city of Philadelphia, and first American advocate of universal swimming and water safety lessons, Benjamin Franklin would be pleased by a small miracle this weekend: all of Philadelphia's 70 public outdoor swimming pools are open.

This summer they will employ 800 lifeguards, swimming coaches, and support staff; give a million people some fun and exercise; and offer lessons and swim-team membership to nearly 3,000 children. The figures look normal for a hot summer, but in fact they represent a remarkable example of creative government in crisis by Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter, and of civic spirit by Philadelphians.

Start with a basic question: What makes a city attractive? The essentials are good schools, safe streets, regular garbage pickups, and so on. Most cities add some unique attractions to the list -- historic sites, a famous museum, a shopping district, professional sports teams, top-tier universities, beaches, and the like. More locally, swimming pools -- like after-school sports, block parties, community colleges, small arts festivals, and other amenities -- make neighborhoods friendly and cities exciting to live in. But everywhere in the country, the economic crisis puts them in question.

With unemployment high and businesses struggling, city hall balance sheets are as grim as those in state Capitols. But mayors and city councils have another little-publicized challenge -- falling home and real estate values presage long-term declines in the property tax revenue that pays for schools and other city services. Thus American mayors struggle to preserve amenities taken for granted in good times.

Philadelphia's challenges are typical. Mayor Nutter and the city council control about $1.74 billion in city spending each year. (In a total budget of $3.87 billion, with the other $2.1 billion going to debt payments, employee pensions, and the offices of independent elected officials.) Nutter uses more than half his money for public safety: $540 million for police, $240 million to run prisons, and $200 million for fire services. Schools, sanitation, and street maintenance are expensive necessities. Libraries, parks, health clinics, sports leagues, swimming pools, recycling, and arts get as much as he can give them.

Since the crisis hit, Philadelphia's income has contracted along with the economy. The city has already cut $1.7 billion from the budget, and with tax revenue down by about $120 million per year still has to close a gap estimated at between $500 million to $700 million over the next five years. Nutter has cut costs wherever possible -- shrinking city employment from 24,000 to 22,500; eliminating $50 million in annual spending on overtime in the police and fire departments; getting $8.5 million by working with the IRS on tax delinquency; and saving $6 million by creating a competitive market in health insurance for city employees -- and Philadelphia's basic services have survived the crisis remarkably well. Precinct data finds violent crime actually down by 9 percent since 2007, and fire prevention and education have cut fire deaths and injuries to an all-time low.

But the more a city has to stretch to pay essentials, the more it has to sacrifice elsewhere. Philadelphia's 70 outdoor pools are open all summer and usually cost the city $1.7 million a year to run. Early in 2009, the city's budget experts had found enough money to open only 10.

Sad news for neighborhoods -- and also for Nutter, who swam at the Cobbs Creek Recreation Center while growing up in West Philadelphia.

His response was creative and personal. Early in 2009 he began campaigning for donations. He went personally to businesses for help, giving prizes and recognition to businesses willing to give $5,000, $10,000 and more. He went on television; he held rallies and charity basketball games, and sent letters to neighborhoods throughout the city, asking families to give a bit of money dedicated to their local pool. By this time last spring, this "Splash and Summer Fund" brought in enough money from businesses and neighborhoods to open 43 of the 70 pools.

This year, the aquatics department still faced a $600,000 gap. But a second campaign, building on the first, brought in still more money. By June, businesses and banks along with neighborhoods had contributed enough money to close the gap. As school closed and temperatures passed 95 degrees, all the city's pools opened on schedule.

Philadelphia's two citywide swim meets are ready to go. The 70 pool-based swimming teams are scheduling swim practice, and swimming classes for 2,800 children and teens are underway. Philadelphia's kids are a bit cooler this summer, and the city's public takes some earned pride in civic spirit and achievement.

Naturally there are some lessons in this: Economic crises can spark creativity as well as cause suffering. Amenities are an important part of neighborhood life that people value and are ready to support when asked. Cities have reservoirs of civic spirit that progressive government can tap. And leadership like Nutter's helps. But as Franklin reminds us, there's more to life than policy lessons:

"'Tis supposed, that every parent would be glad to have their children skilled in swimming, if it might be learnt in a place chosen for its safety and under the eye of a careful person."

Very true. In a hot summer, every parent is glad to see the city pools open, 800 careful lifeguards and swim coaches on the job, and the kids in the water. We congratulate the mayor and the city on a remarkable achievement.


Homepage for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter:

Philadelphia's Recreation Department announces pool opening dates and job openings:

And the Mayor's Splash and Summer Fund:

DLC's State and Local Playbook:

The National League of Cities:

... with a grim report on city finances in 2010:

The U.S. Conference of Mayors:

And last, Philadelphia's city patron -- inventor of the electric stove, newspaper publisher, author of the Albany Plan of Union, the Continental Congress's ambassador to France, the court of Louis XVI, president of the Constitutional Convention -- is also the only member of the founding generation to earn a place in a sports hall of fame. Benjamin Franklin's International Swimming Hall of Fame biography, with some quotations on swimming: