Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Heather C. McGhee notes (as heard on the radio) that racism has a cost for everyone.


Let me tell two stories from my time in local government. One involves an easement for a walking trail. One involves a pool.

The Town of Beekman began construction on a walking trail between the town parks, which went speedily enough as long as the trail was within the right-of-way along a town road, but construction stalled once the town needed to seek permission from adjacent property owners and other government entities. The two largest landowners along the proposed route were the Dalton Farm Homeowners Association and the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority. The water authority punted: the town could cross their property, as long as the HOA agreed to an easement to continue the trail along the county road. So the highway department marked the county’s right-of-way, and the trail committee marked a route for the trail, and we walked the proposed route. We then solicited comment from the residents of Dalton Farm along the route. None of the comments were in favor of the trail. They all expressed concerns over strangers using the trail, people from out of town peeking in their back yards, and thieves breaking into homes in the dead of night. The Dalton Farm board tabled the idea of an easement, and the town’s trail still leads nowhere.

Dalton Farm owns a swimming pool and is required by its bylaws to maintain it in satisfactory condition for the use of the residents. Each year we contracted with a pool management company to clean, maintain, and staff the pool. After some years of trouble with late openings and the lifeguards—the pool company hired young women from Eastern European countries who could not always speak English well and so had trouble with the part of the job that involved communication with swimmers—the association board began looking at alternatives. Several alternatives were considered. The two I put forth, neither of which was accepted, were to hire local lifeguards to staff the pool, much as the Town of Beekman does, or to have the pool unguarded and unstaffed. The board decided to hire a security company to check identification—for slightly less expense than the pool management company—in order to prevent the wrong people from using the pool. The wrong people were those from outside of the association, non-residents, or who owed payments to the association. If memory serves, one of the board members suggested that people “from Poughkeepsie” might try to use the pool. Some years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, the security company’s services were no longer required because it was found that one of the guards had placed video cameras in the rest rooms. The association now hires promising young persons of good character from the neighborhood to check the pool’s pH and guest identification.

“From Poughkeepsie” means “black” and “poor.”

Beekman is 15 miles, 30 minutes from Poughkeepsie.

No one is coming here from there to use any of the amenities we build. And if they did, so what?

The only people not from here who might are our neighbors, whom we see each week at school or the grocery store or church, with whom we play baseball and soccer. The people who use the pool are our children. The people who would use the trail are us: we would walk our dogs there; we would ride our bicycles there.

But we let our fear and prejudice lead us to make the stupidest decisions.

HOA Taxes

I have been serving on the board of the Dalton Farm Homeowner Association for almost a year. This past week we developed the budget for the next fiscal year. The bulk of the budget was already established by contractual arrangements with vendors, and the majority of the rest was approximated from sums expended during previous years. One thing we cannot predict now is the cost of fuel.

To fund its operations, a homeowner association taxes the members, but calls them dues, assessments, or fees, or some other synonym. They are taxes.

Unlike other elected officials, our primary goal is keeping taxes in check. We agree on this goal, which makes budgeting easier. If there is a projected revenue shortfall, the questions then center on what to cut. Do we need $45,000 for improvements to the grounds? Perhaps $25,000 would be sufficient. Should we expect to pay the lawyers $4,000 or $6,000 this year? Can we put off paving the roads until 2010 instead of completing them this year?

I suppose our budget is small, in comparison to other governments. It’s only a million dollars. But it’s more money than I have in the bank, and keeping the tax increase to $12 for the year was unexpected. (If I did the math right, that’s an increase of about 0.7%.) Now let’s see how much oil prices rise.

Real Work, in the Real World

Back in May I was elected to the board of directors of the Dalton Farm Homeowners Association, and became co-chair of the grounds committee. What that means is that I’m responsible for ensuring that the grounds are maintained — that the lawn is cut, the weeds pulled, the trees trimmed, the light-bulbs changed — and improved. And then there was the family of skunks. Most of the work is administrative in nature, such as planning, seeking bids, handling contracts, and addressing complaints.

But it’s a wonderful feeling to reach out and touch something you did. Because the results are physical, the work seems so much more real than what I do for a living. I can see the results of my efforts.