In the thinking of the East Hampton Town Board, apparently, only the rich play tennis. This may be what justifies the board’s recent decision to seek a private company to operate the tennis courts in the town recreation area off Abraham’s Path in Amagansett. The courts, adjacent to the Terry King Ball Field, are reported to be in need of resurfacing, though town officials have not said how much the work would cost if taxpayers had to foot the bill. In the scheme of things, it probably is not all that much and could be considered a reasonable expense had the board not made recent and excessive tax cuts by banking on the retirement of town employees and by gobbling up surpluses.
This hasty plan brings to mind an earlier debacle involving the town-owned Fort Pond House in Montauk, which the town decided to sell instead of paying for necessary repairs, and which led to a legal challenge in State Supreme Court. The town’s less than transparent reasons for privatizing its waste treatment plant come to mind as well.
East Hampton Town’s recent record in handing off sports facilities to businesses is mixed. Several tennis courts in Montauk were fobbed off years ago without complaint that we know of. The Amagansett courts the board now plans to put in private hands are on the same property where it leased a 22,000-square-foot indoor roller hockey and soccer facility, known as the Arena, to Sportime, effectively ending several community programs. The Arena deal — which is in place for 14 more years — brought in just $30,000 to town coffers in 2011. Although the town was spared the cost of upgrades, we can’t help but have the impression that the concessionaire got a pretty sweet deal and the taxpayers relatively little in return.
As a general rule, handing public assets to private, for-profit entities comes at considerable risk. This is especially true in the case of recreational sites. The town should have the wherewithal to keep facilities open to the public without walling them off from its poorest residents, who then are forced to pay fees for once-free or low-cost pursuits.
East Hampton Town must do what it takes to keep the Abraham’s Path courts public without resorting to the counterproductive economics of slipping a public facility to the highest bidder. If a deal for the tennis courts can be struck on terms that truly benefit town residents, it would be worthy of support. This, however, would be a high standard, one that recent history suggests may be unlikely.