Ex-parks chief slams beach, pool closures

Former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
Former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
Trust for Public Land
Former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

Ex-parks chief slams beach, pool closures

Former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe says the decision is shortsighted.
May 22, 2020

Summer is almost here, but two of the season’s prime locations – public pools and beaches – aren’t open as usual in New York City, due to fears of spreading the coronavirus and because of the budget hole caused by the disease. Pools are locked and empty with no plans to open, and the city is discouraging beach visits and banning swimming. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has even put up gates in front of some beach entrances

Adrian Benepe, who oversaw city pools and beaches as the commissioner of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been raising the alarm for more than a month, saying the decision is shortsighted. Benepe, who still works in the world of parks as a senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land, talked to City & State about lifeguards, spray showers and the budget dance.

You’ve said that New York City keeping its pools closed is all about finances, and it doesn’t have anything to do with health?

I mean they’ve got the veneer of health at it. They’re saying, “We can't possibly operate pools under these conditions.”

But does the city government even need to consult with health experts if the fiscal reality is that it’s going to be too expensive?

The total savings from running the pools in the fiscal year ’21 is $12 million. It’s not pennies, because it’s not even a penny. The Parks Department full-year budget is less than one half of one penny in the city’s budget – and that’s $500 million. So the $12 million is a tiny fraction of one-tenth of a penny. It’s nothing. It’s not even a rounding error. You couldn’t see it. The city’s budget is going to be somewhere near $90 billion.

Is there an ulterior motive from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration? Is it about the appearance of safety?

The reality is there’s a huge budget hole. And when you have a hole in your budget, you keep the so-called essential services – police, fire, sanitation, sewer and water, stuff like that – and the unessential services – parks, libraries, cultural affairs – we just cut the shit out of those. So that’s what they’re doing here. The other thing that they’ve done, which has received no PR, is that they’ve quietly taken $20 million out of the Parks Department’s fiscal ’20 budget and eliminated the possibility of getting the pools ready before they open.

Because that’s part of the previous year’s budget, through June 30?

Yes. There used to be this whole thing called pool prep. Everything was painted (and) cleaned. It takes a week to fill all these pools. They have to get all the chemicals going in the filtration plant. Make sure everything is shipshape. And the biggest problem right now is that several months ago they discontinued the operation of the lifeguard training academy. And every year you need about 1,500 lifeguards to fully open the beaches (and) pools according to very rigorous state health codes.

With pools, you can lock them up or not fill them with water. But how do you keep people away from beaches?

So that’s the thing. The thing about this $12 million, it’s a mirage, it’s a fantasy, because in the first week or two of not having beaches open with lifeguards, they will spend that money on police overtime keeping people out of the water. Because the police overtime budget hemorrhages money.

But New York City, in addition to the 17 miles of public beaches, has 526 miles of waterfront. New York City is a city of islands surrounded by dangerous water. And it’s not just that we’re going to have to keep people out of water on the beaches. They’re going to have to keep people out of the water along 526 miles of shoreline.

You were the parks commissioner during the Great Recession. Did you face similar budget questions?

I would say there are certain things that are sacrosanct, and opening the beaches and pools are sacrosanct. Every year there would be a budget dance where we used to bluff and say, “OK, we’ll close the pools.” And they knew we weren’t going to do that. And we’d get the money restored.

How can New Yorkers keep cool?

It’s a three-legged stool. It’s the beaches, pools, and the third – and perhaps the most important in some ways – is spray showers in playgrounds. There’s 1,000 playgrounds under the Parks Department jurisdiction (and) I think 700 of them contain spray showers. Every single playground is closed and locked. And that’s the first line of defense when it’s really hot. And you can also turn them on instantly.

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.