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Council divided over $124M pools proposal

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council appears divided over a nine-figure bond that the Aquatic Master Plan Task Force has said is necessary to repair, upgrade and expand Austin’s pool system.

The bond proposal comes four months after the Parks and Recreation Department unveiled the Aquatic Master Plan, which presented a number of alternative approaches for dealing with the city’s aging pools. The city had to either come up with an estimated $136 million to maintain its current system or it had to begin considering pool closures, Acting Director Kimberly McNeeley said at the time.

Unhappy with the prospect of closing pools, members of the Parks and Recreation Board and some Council members pushed for a new task force to draft a bond proposal aimed at avoiding pool closures.

On Tuesday, the task force reported back to Council with a recommendation for a $124 million bond that would maintain all of Austin’s 35 pools and add four new ones.

Council Member Alison Alter was happy with the result.

“I appreciate you being bold on this,” she said.

Council Member Leslie Pool also reacted positively, saying that she was pleased with the “level of detail and specificity” that she believed the Aquatic Master Plan presented by staff earlier this year lacked.

“I will be hoping to advocate for the higher bond value,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum was Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who earlier this year cast doubt on the usefulness of a task force devoted to aquatics, predicting that it would invariably recommend spending as much as possible on pools. The recommendation announced on Tuesday confirmed his suspicions that the task force would not be willing to make “tough choices” about pools.

“This is insane,” he said. “I don’t understand at all how this is a realistic perspective.”

Flannigan also suggested that a new pool proposed in his northwestern district was not a priority for his constituents, many of whom already have access to pools at their apartment complexes or through public facilities provided by homeowners associations or neighborhood associations.

Council Member Delia Garza similarly suggested much of the proposed spending on pools was about “wants” rather than “needs.” For comparison, she said that some of her constituents have seen their homeowners insurance go up $100 a month recently because of the lack of a nearby fire station. And still, she noted, there is “not a single fire station slated” for the general purpose bond being discussed by the Bond Election Advisory Task Force.

“This is not about me being against pools,” she said.

Mayor Steve Adler didn’t indicate what he thought of the bond’s size.

Members of the aquatics task force defended their proposal, arguing that the admittedly enormous price tag was the result of decades of neglect. In 1996, pointed out parks Board Member Richard DePalma, Austin had one pool for every 12,235 people. Now it’s up to one for every 27,083.

“Our recommendation is to give voters an opportunity to express their choice,” said parks Board Member Rick Cofer, who chaired the task force. “If they want an excellent, robust aquatics system, citywide, they can have that, and it certainly comes at a cost.”

Cofer also argued that aquatics is a fitting strength for a community with hot summers that are likely only going to get hotter as a result of global warming. An opportunity exists, he said, for Austin to become the “pre-eminent” aquatics system in the country.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who said the proposal was far too expensive, said it was unsurprising that a task force composed of pools enthusiasts would view pools as the thing the city should excel at.

“If you had a task force on dog parks, you’d have a lot of dog parks enthusiasts say the same about dog parks,” she said.

In response to the critiques, Parks and Recreation Board Chair Jane Rivera suggested that if Council is unwilling to do what is needed to keep all of the pools open, it should at least take the step of voting on every pool closure, rather than leaving it up to city staff.

The aquatics task force is proposing that the bond it crafted be submitted to voters for approval on the November 2018 ballot, alongside a separate multipurpose bond currently being crafted by the Bond Election Advisory Task Force.

The full Bond Election Advisory Task Force has not yet recommended how much money the overall bond should include. So far, all of the work has been done by five working groups focused on the different areas included in the bond. Those groups have thus far proposed $146 million for affordable housing, $142.5 million for transportation, $85 million for the acquisition of new parkland and open spaces, $100 million for drainage infrastructure and $132 million for improvements to city facilities, for a combined $605.5 million.

Of the money proposed for facilities improvements, $13 million is earmarked to build a pool at Colony Park and $10 million is slated for improvements to the Givens and Mabel Davis pools. That money would not be included in the multipurpose bond, however, if the separate aquatics bond, which also includes those projects, ends up on the ballot next November.

Council Member Greg Casar said he was hesitant to include a pools bond alongside another bond package focused on addressing “deeply existential threats,” notably affordable housing and flooding. Perhaps, he suggested, the pools could wait for another election.

Photo by Steve Hopson (SteveHopson on en.wikipedia) (Photograph created by Steve Hopson [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

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