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A Local Footnote to the Way Philanthropists Undercut Public Services

September 3, 2018

Hartford, Vermont, a community that is part of the Upper Connecticut River Valley where I reside, is experiencing the adverse effects of well intentioned philanthropy.

A local philanthropist who enjoys competitive swimming helped underwrite the costs for a multi-million dollar indoor recreation center that offers a wide range of aquatic experiences as well as a fitness center. The venue includes a splash park for young children, a water slide and “lazy river” for all ages, and an Olympic pool with bleachers for highly competitive swimmers and adult lap swimmers. The fitness center is outstanding, offering free weights and a host of aerobic machines. It also offers yoga classes, zumba and group aerobics, and personal training. All of these services, though, require membership, and that membership helps underwrite the operating costs of the venue and some of the costs associated with the original construction. Oh… and one other factor plays a role in reducing the operating costs: an annual tax abatement of $192,000. The selling point for the abatement is that the presence of this recreational facility draws people into the town, people who stay in motels and eat at restaurants during swim competitions and people who might purchase gasoline and snacks at nearby convenience stores. This influx of out-of-towners will help increase the local tax revenues and stimulate local business. The recreation facility also employs 100 full and part-time workers, which is also good for the local economy. Does all of this result in an offset of $192,000 per annum? No one is certain.

One thing is certain, however. The municipal swimming pool in Hartford needs to be replaced at a cost that exceeds $320,000 and could approach $1,000,000. Over 75% of the residents want to have a free swimming pool for residents, despite the fact that participation at the pool has declined since the new indoor aqua center was built…. and despite the fact that those who want a new pool might not be wiling to pay for a new one.

Would $192,000 in new revenue help underwrite the cost of a pool that EVERYONE could afford to swim in? Absolutely. Will that tax abatement be changed? Absolutely not. Has this donation by a local philanthropist helped or hurt the community? It clearly helped competitive and affluent swimmers… but it clearly hurt those who cannot afford the fees needed to pay for the premium experience the club offers. And this, on a small scale, is the philanthropy paradox.

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