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City mulls free swimming for some Austin seniors

Monday, November 9, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans to waive pool fees for all Austinites ages 80 years or older at Barton Springs Pool and other city pools are moving forward.

Previously, the “Lifetime Pass” program – which grants free entry to Barton Springs for seniors who meet certain requirements – was a way to honor Austinites ages 85 and above. The first fee waiver was approved in 1960, and in the 1990s, the age threshold was lowered from 85 to 80. After some discussion earlier this year, City Council Member Ora Houston proposed expanding the program by loosening the requirements, and the details of that expansion are now being hammered out.

The Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee voted 2-1 on Oct. 28 to change the fee schedule to allow free entry for all Austinites ages 80 and above. The schedule would apply to all seven municipal pools that charge admission. Council Member Don Zimmerman voted in opposition, and Council Member Delia Garza was absent for the vote.

Currently, in order to meet the requirements for a free pass, those interested must be regular swimmers at the pool and, of course, be at least 80 years old. They must also submit a written request that explains how they have contributed to Barton Springs.

Over the past 55 years, 32 Lifetime Passes have been issued. Since the city started discussions about loosening the requirements, seven people have requested the pass, although the change has not yet been made.

Parks and Recreation Department Assistant Director Kimberly McNeeley explained that, because the pass is a fee waiver, any changes would require that the department create a Recommendation for Council Action and present it to several bodies – the Land and Facilities Committee; the Parks and Recreation Board; and the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee – before ultimately seeking Council’s approval.

McNeeley suggested that, instead of going through that process, the city could amend the fee schedule so that patrons of a certain age would not be charged for access to the pool (or pools). Currently, Austin residents who are 62 years or older pay a $1 admission fee.

The parks department recommended this option, and through a rather complicated process, plus what appeared to be some guesswork, staff estimated that the maximum amount of money the city could lose in admission fees would be $289,444 annually.

Worried that it could lead to “segregating by age,” Zimmerman voted against the recommendation to change the fee schedule. He speculated that that those under 80 years of age would end up subsidizing the older population, which could be “another one of these divisions in our city.”

“Word about this issue did make it to some of my District 6 constituents, and I’ve heard very little,” said Zimmerman. “But the little I did hear kind of surprised me. Some of my 80-year-old constituents said, ‘I don’t think I should be entitled to a free swimming pass just because I racked up a whole bunch of years.’”

Zimmerman said he could see both sides of the matter but saw no issue with the current practice of granting Lifetime Passes to those who have some connection to the pool. “I like what you’re doing now, and I can’t support opening this up,” he said. “I think what it does is once again segregates our city.”

The change now moves on to Council for approval.

Photo by Kelly the Deluded made available through a Creative Commons License

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