OPED: Why spend millions on beaches and arenas? Lots of reasons
Silver Sands State Park in Milford may seem like a pristine, grassy marsh leading to a Long Island Sound beach if you walk along the boardwalk and don’t look too closely.
In fact, the park that attracts 250,000 people a year is built on an old town landfill and the former site of 75 houses that were destroyed in a 1955 storm. The state turned that mess into a park over many decades.
Now the state is about to spend $9.1 million on another round of upgrades, including a maintenance building that will save money on moving equipment around, more parking, food concessions, a lifeguard station and, hold on to your shorts, bathrooms.
Opponents — locals who don’t want a more built-up beach park and state spending hawks — thought they had a winning case. If people in town don’t want it and the state is broke, why spend the money?
More broadly, why borrow $1.94 billion this year to pay for a laundry list of capital improvements?
Lots of reasons. Chiefly, Connecticut is not a poor, developing nation, it’s the richest state. We can’t escape our fiscal hell by halting maintenance and upgrades on our assets.
We still need to attract and keep people and companies. Having four civilized beach parks if you’re a state with 3.6 million people and 332 jagged miles of coastline is very much a part of that. Projects of this sort are not the problem.
The issue came to a head Wednesday morning at the Capitol in Hartford, where a panel of nine powerful state officials, led by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, approved the third and final tranche of bonding projects for 2017. Two items, the $9.1 million for Silver Sands and $40 million to once again patch up the aging XL Center in Hartford, came under fire from the Republicans on the panel, Rep. Christopher Davis, R-Ellington, and Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich.
“Now is not the time to be bonding and adding to the state’s credit cards for projects that are simply wants and not needs,” Davis said during a heated spat with Malloy.
Yes, we know the state is basically unable to pay its bills. We know tens of thousands of people could be thrown off the Medicaid rolls in the coming months among many others in jeopardy.
Spending millions on non-necessities “sends the wrong message to the people of the state of Connecticut,” Davis said.
Malloy fired back, “Let me just be clear…Are you advocating that we bond operating expenses?”
The governor was making a distinction between regular, day-in, day-out state operations, which should be financed by tax collections, and one-time capital improvements, for which we borrow money like a homeowner taking out a mortgage.
“Well governor, obviously it comes from the same well and that well is the taxpayer of the state of Connecticut,” Davis said. “It will be paid for by our children and our grandchildren.”
Ah, the grandchildren. This is the rallying cry against borrowing and shorting the pension funds to make ends meet today. But it’s based on emotion and false logic.
We all agree that commitments made in the past, combined with lack of growth that results from the lack of magnet cities, have left us badly hurting. But we have to invest to dig ourselves out. Why should we, as struggling taxpayers, bear the whole brunt now when borrowing rates are low and returns are obvious?
Members of the Milford delegation said the state didn’t listen to them when it planned the Silver Sands work. Malloy, not running for a third term, is now freer than ever to speak bluntly. His vehicle: Babies. You can’t change a diaper in a portable toilet.
Again, it’s those kids.
“This is about one community not wanting other people to use the beaches, the public state beaches, in its community,” Malloy said. “It’s easy for people to live along that area to walk home and change their baby, but it isn’t for people who have traveled a long way.”
Forget diapers. Parks with modern amenities are a front-yard feature of any state, and they are what people remember. The 297-acre Silver Sands attracts one-quarter the crowds of Rocky Neck and barely more than a tenth of the Hammonasset throngs. This plan will add fewer than 200 parking spaces.
“We think it’s an improvement for the public enjoyment,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the private, nonprofit Connecticut Forest and Park Association. He added that the state changed the plans to solve objections of birders concerned about nesting plovers.
There are ways to cut capital spending. This year’s level is about $600 million less than most recent years. There’s fat in the details of $500 million for local schools and $50 million for small business handouts, for example — not in marquee beaches and city arenas that attract hundreds of thousands of people.