Tough choices as Austin council weighs a pools plan with new input

The debate over the future of Austin aquatic facilities returns to City Hall this week, pitting Austinites’ love of their neighborhood pools against a hefty price tag and, some city leaders say, fiscal reality.

The Austin City Council is expected to vote this week on an aquatics master plan that had been punted some months ago amid outcry that it could set up a fierce battle between neighborhoods to save their pools from closure. The master plan comes back to the council with the input of a task force set up last year to look over the shoulder of the consultant-produced report.

The master plan, underway since 2012, ranks city swimming pools for repairs and recommends closing an unspecified 10 to save money. City staffers estimated it would cost $48.6 million just to keep existing pools from failing, $135.8 million to upgrade them and $57.6 million to build five new pools in underserved areas of the city.

The task force’s report proposes fending off pool closures with a $124 million bond proposition just for aquatics in November. Staff has so far asked for only $15 million of new potential bonds to go to aquatics, as a bond task force weighs competing requests for city projects to send to voters.

THE BACK STORY: There will be winners and losers in swimming pool plan

A $124 million aquatics bond proposal could replace all pools likely to fail within the next five years and pay for new pools in Colony Park, Northwest Austin, Southeast Austin and Southwest Austin, the aquatics task force said.

Most importantly, no pool should close without a specific vote of the City Council to do so, its report recommended.

Rick Cofer, who first pushed for the task force and served as its chairman, said he hoped the recommendations would embolden the city’s staff to ask for more money from the council and push public dialogue around closing pools.

“The initial proposal would have closed almost a dozen pools, and that’s just unacceptable,” he said.

Council members traded arguments over the future of city swimming pools during a workshop Tuesday, with some passionately calling to invest in saving them and others saying that, with tight budgets, other priorities should come first.

“We’ve been doing Band-Aids, and doing Band-Aids poorly, for decades,” Council Member Alison Alter said. “If we have no resources that we increase to our aquatics, we will have a decommissioning situation again and again, and it will just be Russian roulette over whose pools get there.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he wouldn’t support a master plan to build new pools — even in his own district — when the city can’t support the existing ones.

“We all have a little bit of PTSD from the last budget, and I just don’t see where the money is going to come from,” he said. “Recommending a new pool in my district is just one example of how we’ve lost our way in making a rational decision on finances.”

RELATED: Parks board: Austin pools master plan sets up aquatic ‘Hunger Games’

Kimberly McNeeley, acting director of the Parks and Recreation Department, noted that the master plan is more of a blueprint for making decisions, rather than a set of policy recommendations. Some of the task force recommendations have been incorporated as amendments, but the ideas for an aquatics bond package and for the council to vote on any closures are separate policy ideas.

Other policy suggestions from the task force include asking Austin Energy and Austin Water to grant “at cost” rates for water and electricity, banking pool fee revenue to use specifically for maintenance and possibly adding fees for a longer swim season.

In feedback sent to the city, several members of the public decried that city pools are open only a couple months of the year, even though it’s hot most of the year. Numerous people said they’d be happy to pay admission for more time.

Input was mixed on whether the city should build an indoor pool. Some residents wrote that such a facility would address an unmet need, while others said it wasn’t needed at all.

While national industry standards have evolved towards creating large, regional aquatic centers with play features, public input in Austin overwhelmingly supported smaller, simpler neighborhood pools where children could learn to swim.

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