As swim season shifts into high gear, it appears public pools areonce again fighting for existence, as communities wrestle with ongoing budget issues.

More than 40 states are projected to have budget shortfalls for fiscal year 2012 — including Arizona, California, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia and Illinois — according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The same is true in many cities and towns. Last year, almost 90 percent of cities were “less able to meet fiscal needs than the previous year” and 80 percent “will be less likely to meet fiscal needs in 2011 than in 2010,” said Amanda M. Straub, media relations assistant for the National League of Cities, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit association of cities and state municipal leagues. She added that according to a July 2010 National League of Cities survey, 54 percent of cities and 45 percent of counties have cut personnel in parks and recreation services.

“Officials have to make tough choices about what services to cut in their cities,” said Straub. “Many cities are already having to make sacrifices with personnel cuts, delaying or canceling capital infrastructure projects and cutting public safety. Unfortunately, recreation amenities such as pools tend to be cut before any of these other services. Pools and other parks and recreation facilities are often quite expensive for a city to run; however, keeping them open may add to citizens’ quality of life during a time when a city is struggling financially … ”

Mick Nelson, the facilities development director at USA Swimming, has documented a total of approximately 350 pool closings since 2009.

As of press time, a small sampling of pools that may remain dry in 2011 include:

  • Washington Park Pool and James Stone Pool, Escondido, Calif. According to local media reports, closing the pools would help close an almost $3 million budget gap, but closing the pools would mean close to 20,000 users would have to find a new pool. Users include more than 2,000 learn-to-swim students and 450 high school athletes.
  • Berry Hill Pool and Constitution Pool, Lexington, Ky. The city of Lexington is facing a deficit of $27 million, according to local media, and closing two pools is just one of a number of proposed cuts. Other pools in the city would be closed on Mondays. The Berry Hill and Constitution pools are described as underused.
  • Grand Traverse County Easling Civic Center Pool, Traverse City, Mich. According to County Administrator Dennis Aloia, the county is facing a revenue shortfall of approximately $700,000. The pool is the only public pool in Grand Traverse County.

“Is it okay to close the pools? No it’s not. What’s prompting the discussion isn’t a dislike of the pools, rather a shortage of funding,” said Olga Diaz, councilwoman with the city of Escondido. She adds that one reason for the shortage of funding is decreased sales tax revenues.
That shortage of funding could mean not enough money to operate a functional pool, or no funding to repair an aging pool to make it safely operable. That’s the case in LeRoy, N.Y. and Kinn County, Kan.

“There’s nothing that has really changed for two years, there’s been no magic solution, no grants made available … “ said USA Swimming’s Nelson.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, some communities, particularly those with an active group of aquatic enthusiasts, have found solutions through community fundraisers. Others have raised fees.

Another possible option for those faced with closing pools is to form a partnership agreement for the operation of the pool. This concept is working successfully so far in Colorado Springs, Colo., and it’s one idea Diaz plans to propose for her city.

Her plan is to consolidate the services for city in one pool and then essentially donate the other pool to the school district, a primary user group, which would be responsible for maintaining it to continue providing a space for aquatic athletes.

“We’ve had pressure from schools to keep the pools open but they haven’t offered to pay more,” said Diaz. “In the long range I would like to see the city invest in one nice aquatic center.”