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Sink or Swim

Public Bath No. 2 is still afloat, but Albany is not out of the fiscal deep end yet

During a marathon five-and-a-half-hour session Monday, the Albany Common Council voted to keep operating Public Bath No. 2, the indoor pool in Albany’s South End, through 2011 by using $216,736 from the city’s contingency fund.

However, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings could still veto the council’s revised budget. The financial plan he initially presented this fall would have closed the heated pool.

The council passed its revised $165 million 2011 budget ordinance on Monday. Once finalized, it will increase residential taxes by 7.5 percent (2 percent plus a mandatory 5.5 percent commercial- residential property tax adjustment). This means the owner of a $150,000 home would spend about $100 more per year in taxes.

The council also resurrected funding for another would-be budget casualty—the arts—by passing an amendment sponsored by Richard Conti (Ward 6). It splits $65,000 in grant money between 26 city community arts organizations.

“A lot of small arts organizations are struggling and teetering,” he said.

All fall, community members have been lobbying for Public Bath No. 2 at council meetings. On Monday, a couple of them carried signs reading “Keep our last bath” and “Please save our pool.” During the public comment period preceding the meeting, more citizens spoke up about the bathhouse than any other issue.

“Only a few short years ago, I was too terrified to put my face in the water,” Lynne Jackson of South Swan Street told the council. “I learned how to swim at Bath House No. 2. Now I can swim half a mile. It’s the only public pool in the city that’s open in the daytime. We need places for people to exercise. We need to teach children how to swim.”

The grassroots effort to save the pool has drawn attention to a little-known resource in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The 110-year-old building has been neglected for at least a decade.

Now, its champions say they want to leverage its historic nature to get grants to fix it up. They want to introduce more structured programming and court partnerships with local schools and day-care facilities. They’re even considering expanding it into more of a community center.

“Very few people even know the bathhouse is there,” said South End resident Jacqui Williams. “We’re looking at trying to raise the awareness level and potentially raise fees. We believe people are willing to pay a little bit more to keep it open, to have signs so they know the building is there, and lights.”

At this point, the ball is in the mayor’s court. He hasn’t used his veto power since he took office in January 1994. If he vetoes the budget amendment that restores funding to the pool, then the council has until Dec. 20 to consider an override.

Under the city charter, 10 votes—two thirds of the council membership—are needed to override a veto.

The margin was 9 to 5 when the council approved Councilman Frank Sano’s (Ward 9) amendment to keep the pool open. The “no” votes were cast by council members Ronald Bailey (Ward 3), Frank Commisso (Ward 15), Daniel Herring (Ward 13), Joseph Igoe (Ward 14) and Jacqueline Jenkins-Cox (Ward 5). The only absent council member was Lester Freeman (Ward 2). The pool is in his district.

The mayor’s office said on Tuesday that it was premature to discuss a veto until Jennings has a chance to look over the changes that the council made. Legally, the council had until today (Thursday) to provide the mayor with a certified copy of the budget ordinance and amendments.

Council members voted 8 to 6 to reduce expenditures by $95,000 by imposing a 10- percent across-the-board reduction in overtime in the recreation and general-services departments. They voted 10 to 4 against an amendment that would have similarly reduced public safety workers’ overtime. Albany’s fire and police chiefs objected during a caucus preceding the meeting.

Fire and emergency services Chief Robert Forezzi Sr. warned that stretching his 240-man force any thinner could cost lives, because fires double in size every minute. Further budget cuts could mean temporary closures at understaffed stations or full-fledged station closings, he said.

“Are you prepared to tell the people in your district why the fire truck is late?” he asked. “Any reduction in my department will jeopardize public safety.”

Councilman Commisso sponsored an amendment that would have passed a portion of health insurance premium costs onto retirees. But he withdrew the measure after retired workers and union representatives complained. Many retirees, especially from the ’70s era, are living “just above the poverty line,” Christian Mesley of the Albany Police Officers Union told the council Monday.

“This would be a real catastrophe for a lot of retirees,” retired firefighter Pat Fox said. “It would put them probably in the poorhouse.”

Passing up the chance to shave expenses today will come back to haunt the city tomorrow, Commisso cautioned.

“I think the official city financial policy is, ‘Let’s hope we get a bag of cash next year from across the street,’ ” he said. “We have an opportunity today to cut $1.7 million off the city budget . . . and we don’t do it.”

The city faced a $23 million budget shortfall this year, largely due to state aid cuts, declining sales tax revenue and increased fixed costs such as pensions and health insurance. Next year, even if state funding comes through, Commisso predicted, the city will face “200 layoffs and a double-digit tax increase to cover that hole.”

—Laurie Lynn Fischer

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