Letter: Nursery Field Fundraising is Anti-Democratic

Putting a special interest group’s thumb on the decision-making scale cannot help but influence that decision.

Published June 28, 2024 9:00 AM
2 min read

0:00

To the Editor,

You’ve likely seen those signs around town promoting donations to the “Nursery Field Improvement Project,” the private fundraising drive to raise a promised $3 million to install a artificial turf playing field on the Milton Road site of the same name. I’m personally agnostic on the merits of turf versus grass — the issue which divided the City Council until it ultimately voted 7 to 0 in May to back turf. But this is to urge, nonetheless, that Rye residents resist the call for donations — less as a way to protect the environment but as a way to defend local democracy.

The City Council, to be sure, is our local democratic legislature — and it has made its backing for turf clear. And perhaps Council members would have voted the same way even without the promised $3 million in private funding. But private money should, quite simply, not play a role in setting our priorities. Putting a special interest group’s thumb on the decision-making scale cannot help but influence that decision. It should not be part of the process.

One can easily imagine other troubling scenarios if the Nursery Field approach becomes a precedent. A parents group might come forward to financially back a new theater auditorium on the Rye High School parking lot. Theater has its own virtues and advocates, just as do youth soccer and lacrosse. Fitness groups might come forward with funds to back an expanded bike trail system or a municipal swimming pool. These and other projects can be backed by strong emotional arguments, just as has been the case with Nursery Field.

In a democratic government, however, elected officials face tradeoffs on any budget vote. They must balance the interests of all taxpayers. Any new project is likely to have back-end costs, over time. The offer of private funds puts the enthusiasms of one group at the head of the line. Public works projects of any kind should be decided on their inherent merits — and financed through either the operating budget or debt. All such votes should be made on a “compared to what” basis. Doing so reflects the fact that upfront costs are never the end of the story. Maintenance will be required — and that will mean ongoing budget needs.

This is not to say that private money has no role in improving civic life. The Town of Rye long ago made the democratic decision to set aside land for Rye Town Park. The Friends of Rye Town Park help with park maintenance — but private money did not influence the decision to establish the park in the first place. So, too, with financial support for programs or teachers at Rye High School — whose program structure is decided by an elected school board.

Whatever your view of the Nursery Field turf issue, it’s better not to donate to the Nursery Field Improvement Project (which, it seems to turn out, didn’t have that $3 million in the bank or it wouldn’t need to fundraise). Let the issue return to the City Council for a vote strictly on its merits — without a financial thumb on the scale.

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