AUSTIN JUMPS BACK INTO PUB­LIC POOL DE­BATE

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@states­man.com

The de­bate over the fu­ture of Austin aquatic fa­cil­i­ties re­turns to City Hall this week, pit­ting Aus­tinites’ love of their neigh­bor­hood pools against a hefty price tag and, some city lead­ers say, fis­cal re­al­ity.

The Austin City Coun­cil is ex­pected to vote this week on an aquat­ics mas­ter plan that had been punted some months ago amid out­cry that it could set up a fierce bat­tle be­tween neigh­bor­hoods to save their pools from clo­sure. The mas­ter plan comes back to the coun­cil with the in­put of a task force set up last year to look over the shoul­der of the con­sul­tant-pro­duced re­port.

The mas­ter plan, un­der­way since 2012, ranks city swim­ming pools for re­pairs and rec­om­mends clos­ing an un­spec­i­fied 10 to save money. City staffers es­ti­mated it would cost $48.6 mil­lion just to keep ex­ist­ing pools from fail­ing, $135.8 mil­lion to up­grade them and $57.6 mil­lion to build five new pools in un­der­served ar­eas of the city.

The task force’s re­port pro­poses fend­ing off pool clo­sures with a $124 mil­lion bond propo­si­tion just for aquat­ics in Novem­ber. Staff has so far asked for only $15 mil­lion of new po­ten­tial bonds to go to aquat­ics, as a bond task force weighs com­pet­ing re­quests for city projects to send to vot­ers.

A $124 mil­lion aquat­ics bond pro­posal could re­place all pools likely to fail within the next five years and pay for new pools in Colony Park, North­west Austin, South­east Austin and South­west Austin, the aquat­ics task force said.

Most im­por­tantly, no pool should close with­out a spe­cific vote of the City Coun­cil to do so, its re­port rec­om­mended.

Rick Cofer, who first pushed for the task force and served as its chair­man, said he hoped the rec­om­men­da­tions would em­bolden the city’s staff to ask for more money from the coun­cil and push pub­lic dialogue around clos­ing pools.

“The ini­tial pro­posal would have closed al­most a dozen pools, and that’s just un­ac­cept­able,” he said.

Coun­cil mem­bers traded ar­gu­ments over the fu­ture of city swim­ming pools dur­ing a work­shop Tues­day, with some pas­sion­ately call­ing to in­vest in sav­ing them and oth­ers say­ing that, with tight bud­gets, other pri­or­i­ties should come first.

“We’ve been do­ing Band- Aids, and do­ing Band-Aids poorly, for decades,” Coun- cil Mem­ber Ali­son Al­ter said. “If we have no re­sources that we in­crease to our aquat­ics, we will have a de­com­mis­sion­ing sit­u­a­tion again and again, and it will just be Rus­sian roulette over whose pools get there.”

Coun­cil Mem­ber Jimmy Flan­ni­gan said he wouldn’t sup­port a mas­ter plan to build new pools — even in his own dis­trict — when the city can’t sup­port the ex­ist

ing ones. “We all have a lit­tle bit of PTSD from the last bud­get, and I just don’t see where the money is go­ing to come Coun­cil Mem­ber Jimmy Flan­ni­gan said he wouldn’t sup­port a mas­ter plan to build new pools — even in his own dis­trict — when the city can’t sup­port the ex­ist­ing ones. from,” he said. “Re­com- mend­ing a new pool in my dis­trict is just one ex­am­ple of how we’ve lost our way in mak­ing a ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion on fi­nances.”

Kim­berly McNee­ley, act­ing di­rec­tor of the Parks and Recre­ation Depart­ment, noted that the mas­ter plan is more of a blue­print for mak­ing de­ci­sions, rather than a set of pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions. Some of the task force re­com- men­da­tions have been in­cor- po­rated as amend­ments, but the ideas for an aquat­ics bond pack­age and for the coun­cil to vote on any

clo­sures are sep­a­rate pol­icy ideas.

Other pol­icy sug­ges­tions from the task force in­clude ask­ing Austin En­ergy and Austin Wa­ter to grant “at cost” rates for wa­ter and

elec­tric­ity, bank­ing pool fee rev­enue to use specif­i­cally for main­te­nance and pos­si­bly adding fees for a longer swim sea­son.

In feed­back sent to the city, sev­eral mem­bers of the pub­lic de­cried that city pools are open only a cou­ple months of the year, even though it’s hot most of the year. Nu­mer­ous peo­ple said they’d be

happy to pay ad­mis­sion for more time.

In­put was mixed on whether the city should build an in­door pool. Some res­i­dents wrote that such a fa­cil­ity would ad­dress an un­met need, while oth­ers said it wasn’t needed at all.

While na­tional in­dus­try stan­dards have evolved to­ward cre­at­ing large, re­gional aquatic cen­ters with play fea­tures, pub­lic in­put in Austin over­whelm

in­gly sup­ported smaller, sim­pler neigh­bor­hood pools where chil­dren could learn to swim.

DEB­O­RAH CAN­NON / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2017

Paul Slutes, aquatic main­te­nance man­ager for Austin Parks and Recre­ation, works on the re­painted Pat­ter­son Park pool be­fore it was filled last May. A task force re­port pro­poses fend­ing off pool clo­sures with a $124 mil­lion bond propo­si­tion just for aquat­ics in Novem­ber.

TAMIR KALIFA / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2017

Catherine Michalk plays with her 10-month-old son, Lewis, at Lit­tle Stacy Wad­ing Pool last July. Some mem­bers of the pub­lic have de­cried that city pools are open only a cou­ple of months of the year, even though it’s hot most of the year.

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