Who Pays for Playland?
By Howard Husock
It sounds, at first, like an overly simple question with an obvious answer. Who pays for Playland? The answer would seem to be its customers—$20 for Westchester residents, $30 for those from outside the County, plus parking. But as the County continues to struggle with the question of who should manage the only government-owned amusement park in the nation, it’s important to provide a factual answer: all County residents pay for Playland, even those who never go there. And City of Rye and Town of Rye residents pay more than most.
It’s all because Playland runs at a significant operating loss; the current County budget projects the park losing $2 million this year on its operations alone. That does not even include its share of the $12 million the County’s Parks and Recreation department as a whole will spend on health and retirement benefits. Nor does it include any of the depreciation cost on the park’s aging equipment. Personnel, materials, and routine maintenance simply outstrip revenue.
That means that Rye City and Rye Town taxpayers must take a hit to help close the gap. And we help more than most. That’s because we pay a disproportionate share of all County expenses, whether we avail of County services or not. What’s more, in the case of Playland particularly, our taxpayer dollars pay for a park used, overwhelmingly, by customers who don’t even live in Westchester.
Consider the big picture when it comes to property taxes, the County’s major source of revenue: $705 million for fiscal 2018, which must cover expenses such as those of Playland. Rye City and Rye Town are on the hook for $$68 million, or almost 10 percent. By comparison, Mt. Vernon and New Rochelle combined pay slightly less ($67 million) — despite the fact that their combined populations of 147,000 are almost five times that of the combined totals for Rye City and Town (31,000). We pay more per household for everything, whether the County Health Department or Playland. Higher property values mean higher property taxes; as matters stand, a larger share of Rye City property taxes go to the County than to the City — whose services we experience daily and directly (sanitation, road repairs, fire and police).
Perhaps this is the way it should be; wealthier municipalities helping to cover the cost of public services for less affluent jurisdictions. But it means that the County must spend our money wisely. That could mean running an historic amusement park, despite the fact that no other unit of government in the country does so. But one would think that should mean that the services for which we pay are those used by County residents. That’s not the case when it comes to Playland.
In 2009, the County commissioned a major economic analysis of Playland as a business. That included the most recent analysis published of customer data. The “Rye Playland Visitor Intercept Survey Results” showed that only 29 percent of customers lived anywhere in Westchester. A greater number, 32 percent came from the Bronx, while 10 percent came from Queens, 9 percent from Manhattan, five percent from Brooklyn, and 4 percent from Connecticut.
It is one thing to ask residents of more affluent parts of Westchester to provide taxpayer support for social services for those in less well-off areas. It is quite another to subsidize the cost of an amusement park for non-County residents. But that’s what we’re doing.
Which is why we must continue to consider, seriously, new approaches —including the option of private management to reduce expenses and cover the cost of capital improvements (the Standard Amusement option, currently in legal limbo). But nor should we remain wedded to Playland in its current form. Other options could include retaining a handful of historic rides, along with the beach and pool — in other words, keeping what’s unique about Playland but sharply reducing expenses and perhaps increasing fees.
The Playland cost problem is a microcosm of a larger question: Do we really need County government? None of the New England states has it; courts are the province of the state there, as are social services. Schools, public works, sanitation, and public safety are under local control. The Playland example shows us what happens when government —whether to protect its own employment or provide jobs for constituents — provides a service its residents don’t even use.