Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Just Swimmingly, Thank You

When I got elected to City Council last year I never thought I'd be focusing so much of my time as a Councilor on the issue of...indoor swimming pools. But this is a town that takes its indoor aquatics seriously. Having said that, this is also a town that has run its public indoor aquatic facilities into the ground. Thanks to years of deferred maintenance, they're in sad shape today. It would cost an extraordinary amount of money to restore them to their original condition and keep them functional for another 30-40 years. Oh, and the vast majority of the people who use these pools don't live in the City. City taxpayers bear most of the financial burden of operating Smith Pool, for example, yet surveys suggest that fewer than 10% of the users of Smith Pool last year were City residents.

There's been a lot of public discussion lately on the choices we have before us when it comes to the future of our indoor pool facilities. I won't rehash the whole range of options here. I have been convinced, however, that our community will not be well-served by maintaining (or even slightly elevating) the status quo. The fiscally conservative approach would be for the City to get out of the indoor pool business altogether and to privatize the whole affair. The fiscally profligate approach would be for the City to build two public state-of-the-art replacement facilities and operate them into perpetuity at taxpayers' expense. I have no reason to believe that there isn't an ideal solution to be found in between these two extremes. And in fact, after a great deal of study, the good folks on our Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee have proposed such a solution:

1) Consolidate Crow & Smith Pools and build a new Smith Pool in the old one's place, operating it as a public facility but one that meets a much broader range of indoor aquatic needs than Crow or Smith do today, with an overt emphasis on attracting and serving more City residents. The new Smith Pool would be located adjacent to the new Boys & Girls Club at Buford Middle School, providing tremendous opportunities for cost-savings and programmatic synergies in the construction and operation of these community facilities.

2) Partner with Albemarle County and the YMCA to establish an accessible and affordable new indoor aquatic/recreation facility in McIntire Park, next to Charlottesville High School (just a stone's throw from Crow Pool) that will offer first-rate fitness & enrichment programs for high school youth, young adults, senior citizens, working families, and other folks who can't afford the costs of a private/for-profit club membership. City taxpayers would incur no ongoing operating costs for the facility (saving millions of taxpayer dollars in the coming decades); the main cost to the City would be the loss of one softball field at McIntire Park (used almost exclusively today by non-City residents) -- and, if we choose, a loan to help build a competitive swimming pool for use by our CHS Swim Team.

City Council is in the middle of a lengthy discussion and debate about the pros and cons of this proposed course of action, and of course the devil (as always) is in the details. It's by no means an easy decision for Council. Many residents are quite fond of the indoor aquatics facilities & programs that we have now, and are understandably leery of change. Some residents recoil at the mere whiff of privatization and are suspicious of what the City would be losing by entering into "public-private partnerships" with groups like the Boys & Girls Club or the YMCA (and don't even get me started on all the e-mails I've received about separation of church & state thanks to the "C" in YMCA). Some residents, distrustful of Albemarle County's motives, wonder if the County is pulling a fast one on us by securing a prime chunk of City real estate for a facility that's going to serve a whole lot of County residents. Some residents simply hate the idea of leasing out a piece of McIntire Park (even if it's "just" one of the softball fields) when we're already about to lose a huge swath of the Park to the new Meadowcreek "Park"way. (Can't say I'm not sympathetic to this last concern, but I do think parks are designed in large part for recreational purposes so it irks me much less to introduce a recreation facility into the park than to build a big road through the park [which will bring with it a noxious mess of asphalt and automobiles and exhaust fumes and noise pollution and other things from which parks are supposedly intended to provide us refuge].) And a tiny handful of folks are so blinded by their blanket disgust at anything City Council does that you almost suspect they'd find reasons to oppose this deal no matter the particulars. Can't do anything about them and won't even bother tryin'.

So the challenge for those of us on Council who are inclined to support the proposed course of action is not only to make a compelling case as to why the status quo is not serving the community well, but also to demonstrate how the anticipated benefits of these proposed changes are sufficiently "pro" to outweigh the "cons." Pardon the pun, but this is no walk in the park. At the end of the day, however, I believe we very likely could have a system that offers more and better amenities to more City residents at lower long-term cost to City taxpayers. That kind of an outcome doesn't present itself very often (ever?) in the operations of local government, which is why I have been positively inclined toward pursuing it. But as always, my fellow Councilors and I need to hear from citizens as to what you think & what you value. (It's your money, not ours.) And it's now easier than ever for City residents to voice their opinions to Council on this or any matter -- simply send an e-mail to council@charlottesville.org and it will automatically go to our in-boxes. Or call and leave a message at 970-3113 and it will be forwarded to us. Thanks.

p.s. FYI, City staff put together (at Peter Kleeman's suggestion) a one-page matrix which spells out the different facility options that we are considering. It's quite helpful and can be downloaded here.


maiaoming said...

First of all, I didn't even know the City had year-round, indoor pool facilities - I just recently figured that out!

Second, as a working mother of a two year old, I would love the ability to take my child to swim classes or to swim year-round. However, all the City swim classes are scheduled during normal work hours. What?? We can't afford AcAC anymore.

Swimming is a great exercise, and exercise good for people's mental as well as physical health - so anything to give poor and working class families more access seems to me to be a healthy thing to do on the part of the city.

Just please, continue thinking about who these facilities are for or potentially for!
Thanks for all your work on this!

Anonymous said...

The City of Charlottesville currently offers swim classes at the indoor city pools on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings. I'm not sure what you consider "normal work hours."

Also, for children who cannot afford the small fee for city rec classes, there are swim classes offered as part of the Physical Education curriculum at Walker Upper Elementary School.

None of the councilors have said what will happen to these city programs should the city choose to close Crow Pool.

I am confused by this survey that says fewer than 10 per cent of the folks who use the city pools are city residents. I have lived in Charlottesville for many years and ENJOY swimming at Crow, Smith, Meade and Washington Pools. I have never been surveyed about the pools. And, I have spoken to many other parents of children who swim for the City of Charlottesville. None of them can recall ever being surveyed either. When was this survey conducted, how was it administered and how many people were surveyed? I think it would be very helpful to know these facts before using the results from the survey.

Lyle Solla-Yates said...

This is a tricky problem, mainly because of the massive free rider problem, that county residents can swim free in a city facility on city land. I've swum several times at Mint Springs in the County and was always required to pay an entrance fee. Fine, that's fair. Why not do the same in the city, unless swimmers can prove city residence?
I suspect that part of the politics of the long-running deferred maintenance was this free rider problem. Perhaps this plan would prevent the same thing from happening again.

Bunny Carlos said...

There's a free-rider problem? I live in the county and when I've registered for swim lessons at the city pool, I've had to pay the county price, not the lower city price. Likewise, if I go to one of the city pools with my kids and don't show a city ID, I pay the entrance fee. In my experience, it's not been the case that country residents are getting to use city pools for free.

Lyle Solla-Yates said...

Bunny- If that's the case and the fees are fair, then I don't see that it particularly matters if more county people than city people swim. Unless the fees are too low to cover expenses, everyone is paying their fair share.

Rescue Squad said...

Since when is swimming a function of government? I never swim, I'm OK with being a land mammal.

How about fully funded fire and rescue departments first?

Why do we have "Fart in Place" funded by the city, yet the Rescue Squad relies mostly on volunteers.

OK lets pay for accessories like Neighborhood Development Services, Fart in Place, and swimming, only if Rescue, Police, Schools, Fire, etc are FULLY FUNDED!