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Even with new funding, parks board says city has a long way to go to repair pools

Friday, December 7, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

The year 1996 was the gold standard for Austin’s city Aquatics Division, according to Richard DePalma, a member of the Parks and Recreation Board. Since then, “We’ve just continued to shrink.”

At the Dec. 4 meeting of the board, DePalma noted that the Parks and Recreation Department continually lists 40 pools on the books, but has only 35 operational pool facilities. “I feel like we’re misrepresenting the aquatics facilities that we have to the public,” he said. Although the five pools in question are not yet declared permanently shut or unusable, DePalma said, “I just want there to be meeting minutes that I at least said something.”

The shuttered facilities are Palm Park Pool, Odom Park Pool, Kealing Park Pool, St. Johns Pool, and Commons Ford Ranch Pool. Additionally, both Mabel Davis and Givens reopened this summer after the city completed extensive repairs, to the tune of $100,000 and $250,000, respectively. However, after consideration of the status of the five nonoperational pools by the board and parks staff, “I think administratively we need to start messaging differently … I don’t disagree with you at all,” noted Parks and Recreation Acting Director Kimberly McNeeley.

There is some good news, though, for the city’s pools. After voters approved a $149 million bond for Parks and Recreation – with 81 percent voting in favor of the bond – the Aquatics Division will have an additional $40 million, which they plan to use to construct two new pools and repair two others in the system. “If I had to make that decision … currently those two pools (to repair) would likely be Northwest and Montopolis,” said Jodi Jay, Aquatics Division manager.

While no final decisions have been made as to which pools the city will repair, board members expressed their enthusiasm at being able to fund both repairs and preventive projects. “Instead of having to put fingers in the dikes everywhere, perhaps there’s a boot to put in one place now,” said Board Chair Jane Rivera.

One of the so-called “boots” that the division plans to implement is purchasing extra pumps and motors. The intention is to have enough stock on hand so if either of those major pieces of equipment fails, there will be a solution available within a day, rather than waiting a week or two for parts to come in, as is currently the case.

Likewise, the department is experimenting with a new paint product that lasts five to 10 years and also acts as a sealant for cracks. Currently, both the Rosewood Pool and Patterson Pool have this new product and “the pool worked very well,” said Jay. The old paint that the city used requires that pools are drained and repainted annually, a less fiscally conscious solution, according to Jay.

In addition to the $40 million that voters authorized for the city, the Aquatics Division is seeing increased revenues from attendance fees, especially at Barton Springs.

Since 2014, attendance numbers have grown steadily, and 2018 was another record year with 1.6 million total pool users and 975,000 visitors alone to Barton Springs Pool. “We’re seeing about a 200,000-person increase at Barton Springs Pool each year,” said Jay, who warned that if the trend continues, it could begin to affect infrastructure, staffing and water quality.

As of now, the department does not have a game plan for how to regulate this dramatic increase in visitors, which she explained has only occurred over the last two years. She noted that another summer is required for evaluation before any actions can be taken.

DePalma cautioned that when regulatory steps are implemented, the city should work to avoid a similar situation to Hamilton Pool where capacity limits were set up “overnight.”

Although Jay said that the division is ending the year on a high note, there are still many projects waiting to be completed. DePalma suggested that the division consider some smaller projects to spruce up the curb appeal of the facilities in addition to the major repairs. Referring specifically to Mabel Davis, which just underwent major repairs, he said, “Can we have a paint pool party over there? I’ll bring the paintbrushes.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL].

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