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Unhappy with pools plan, Council members push for a new task force

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 by Jack Craver

Unsatisfied with an Aquatic Master Plan that they say endangers many of Austin’s most beloved pools, some City Council members are pushing for a new pools task force to explore ways the city could raise more money to preserve its existing aquatics system.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told colleagues on Tuesday that she plans to push for a vote scheduled for Thursday on the master plan to be postponed so that a new task force can weigh in on the 150-page document.

The Parks and Recreation Board, Tovo noted, had expressed concerns about the plan hinting at future pools closing, including popular ones like Deep Eddy and Big Stacy.

Parks staff has insisted the plan is not intended to close pools but rather to present Council with the costs of maintaining them and prioritize what to keep if Council is unwilling to fork over the money.

However, citing significant concerns from constituents, Tovo, along with Council members Leslie Pool and Alison Alter, has hinted that the plan has not been adequately vetted by the public.

“There’s not enough discussion of alternative funding opportunities,” said Alter. “We need to be more creative about a more permanent source of funding.”

Alter added that there may be many willing to “pay a couple of extra cents in property tax” to prevent neighborhood pools from closing.

“It’s a lot of raw material,” added Pool, holding up the large binder containing the master plan. “It will be really helpful to us as a decision panel if we can get more of an implementation and strategy from this additional effort that the mayor pro tem is proposing.”

Mayor Steve Adler was supportive of the postponement, but others on Council were skeptical, suggesting that a task force would simply duplicate the extensive public input that informed the master plan.

“The Parks Department is one of the few departments that does community engagement very well and they’ve been working on this for years,” said Council Member Ora Houston, who said she would vote against postponement.

Houston added that the master plan had been misinterpreted. “It’s not a decommissioning plan, as some people have indicated,” she said.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that a task force only focused on pools would invariably recommend to spend as much money as possible on them, without having to take into account what other city services might have to be sacrificed as a result.

Tovo originally suggested that the working group be composed of three members of the Parks and Recreation Board along with one person appointed by each Council member.

However, echoing Flannigan’s concerns, Council Member Delia Garza said that she would prefer the new task force simply be a working group of the Parks and Recreation Board. At the very least, she argued, such a group would at least be considering the potential cuts to other parks services that might come from a major boost in the aquatics budget.

“If this is just a pools advocates group they’re going to say spend more money on pools,” she said.

Tovo was receptive to the idea but noted that a commission “working group” is not subject to open meetings requirements and generally does not have support from city staff during meetings. She said she would talk with the city law department to further explore the options.

Interim Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley told Council that she welcomed further scrutiny of the master plan and how to “better define and better explain how we came to those conclusions” about the future of city pools.

Adler concluded the discussion by applauding the work that had gone into the master plan, which he said presented the “tough choices” the city faces with regard to pools.

“This is a near-impossible issue to be dealing with,” he said.

Photo by Andy made available through a Creative Commons license.

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