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Council approves pools plan but funding questions remain

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 by Jack Craver

On Thursday, City Council overwhelmingly approved the Aquatic Master Plan, a 640-page document crafted by the Parks and Recreation Department that provides guidance for repairing and expanding the city’s aging system of pools.

The plan says that the capital costs necessary to improve the system range from $152 million to $193 million, “depending on how many of the current Neighborhood Pools are kept in operation.”

That pool closures are even considered in the plan has drawn criticism from pools advocates and some members of Council. Acting PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley has said that the plan should not be interpreted as recommending closures, but rather as laying out options for what to do based on how much money the city is willing to spend.

Council Member Alison Alter, who described the master plan as a “decommissioning plan” when it was unveiled last summer, said Thursday that approving the plan would not be enough – it needs to be accompanied by funding. Otherwise, she said, the city would soon be forced to close pools.

“We are in a dire situation,” said Alter. “Our pools are on life support.”

Austin’s blazing summers are only getting hotter, she said, making pools an even more critical community resource.

Alter proposed that staff come back to Council with different options for increasing funding for pools. Options include putting more money for pools in the bond package that voters will be asked to approve in November; exploring ways that private philanthropy could fund city pools; using Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue to repair “historic” pools; and charging entry fees at the city’s smaller, neighborhood pools, all of which are currently free.

“We did hear from a lot of people that they would be willing to pay something to go to their pool,” said Alter. She noted, however, that she would want revenue from any new fees to fund pools, rather than to go into the city’s General Fund, where the fees currently charged at the city’s larger pools go.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she was unlikely to ultimately support imposing fees at neighborhood pools.

“One of the real values of our neighborhood pools is that they’re free,” said Tovo. “The real beauty of it is if they’re near your house you can go and jump in quickly; there’s no financial investment in that.”

Alter changed the language of her direction to staff to make clear that it was not suggesting new fees, but rather specifying that if new fees are imposed, they should only fund pool maintenance.

Another Alter motion directed PARD to build upon a pilot program that it recently undertook with Austin Water at Parque Zaragoza that put in place smart meters aimed at finding leaks more quickly. The $56,000 investment has already saved the pool $40,000 in water costs, said Alter.

Tovo offered a successful amendment to require a Council vote before any pool is permanently closed. Pools advocates have urged for such a provision so that Council will have to take responsibility for a pool closure, rather than letting PARD make the decision administratively.

“I just think having that be the expectation makes the best sense,” said Tovo.

The extent to which the aspirations of the master plan are realized largely depends on what Council decides to do about the one or more bonds that have been proposed for voters to approve on the ballot this November.

The Bond Election Advisory Task Force is currently in the process of crafting a major bond proposal that includes funds for a variety of city priorities, including transportation, affordable housing, flood mitigation and parks. One of the working groups of the task force has recommended $23 million to build a new pool and make some improvements to existing ones.

However, a separate group of pools advocates has called for a separate, $124 million aquatics-specific bond to be put on the ballot. That proposal got a mixed reception from Council, including plaudits from Alter and Council Member Leslie Pool and ridicule from Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Ellen Troxclair.

On Thursday, Flannigan was the only vote against the master plan, saying he couldn’t support a plan that called for major investment in new pools when the city can’t afford to maintain its facilities.

Council Member Greg Casar voted for the master plan, calling pools an “important resource,” but said that he would not support a $124 million bond for pools. That is more money for pools, he noted, than the city has spent in its history on affordable housing.

“I would find it difficult to do over $120 million for pools this year when that’s more than we’ve ever done for housing,” he said.

Photo by Todd Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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