Like fluoride in the water and potholes in the streets, the very idea of charging admission at Spokane’s public pools keeps making waves.
There’s been just one year since Spokane opened its first public pool almost a century ago when kids were charged to swim. Spokane is the only city among the state’s seven largest that doesn’t charge children to swim.
Still, when faced with budget troubles, the Spokane Park Board often has considered changing that trend. The latest proposal, which was debated at a hearing Wednesday night, would reduce the hours of free swimming while adding hours when kids would have to pay.
Park leaders say they want to find a balance to help them cover more of the cost of running the pools without excluding folks who can’t afford a fee. Park Board member Elizabeth Schoedel suggested the department could work with the Spokane Parks Foundation and businesses to provide free passes to children from low-income families during swim times that have a charge.
“We don’t have unlimited resources,” Schoedel said. “Spokane, when push comes to shove, can be really generous.”
Last year, kids could swim free at each pool for 31 hours a week. That number would fall to 20 hours in the proposal. But pools would be open an additional 24 hours each week, during which kids would pay $2.50.
The proposal also would open the pools Sundays for the first time since 2003.
Many argue that Spokane should not give up its tradition of 100 percent free youth swimming.
Terri Roeth, who lives near the Hillyard Pool, said it provides a healthy, supervised activity for kids in the summer, and many in the neighborhood wouldn’t be able to pay.
“I’m worried about crime. I’m worried about the kids being bored,” she said. “This is going to be detrimental to our neighborhood, detrimental to our kids.”
Last year, the city spent $602,000 on five pools and generated about $124,000 in revenues from adult prices and other fees. Considering pool attendance, the city subsidized the cost of each visit by about $5.
The Park Board rejected a proposal in 2005 to charge kids $1 for entry. Spokane’s tradition of free swimming was interrupted only for a short time in the 1980s when a 35-cent admission was levied on children, according to a Spokesman-Review article.
In 2007, voters approved a $43 million park bond, most of which is being used to construct or rebuild six outdoor pools, the first of which will open this summer.
Toni Lodge, executive director of the NATIVE Project in Spokane, said voters should have been warned that fees might be created before the vote.
“I didn’t vote for this thinking that it was going to cost $5 a day for us to swim,” Lodge said, noting that a child who wanted to swim a full day would be at the pool during two $2.50 swim periods.
Comstock Pool, Spokane’s oldest, was opened with the goal of giving kids a safe place to play and learn to swim.
Posted on the bathhouse was a line from Shakespeare touting the benefits of knowing how to swim.
Roeth said reducing free swimming weakens that city tradition.
“Our kids are going to be swimming in the Spokane River and drowning,” Roeth said.
Spokane Aquatics Supervisor Carl Strong said the proposed free sessions and possible programs to allow economically disadvantaged kids to swim at other times will continue to give all children a safe place to cool off. He added that even with completely free swimming, some choose the river.
“I’ve been at Witter (Pool) during open swim and kids were walking to the river and jumping in,” Strong said.
A vote on the proposal has not been scheduled.
“We’re looking for input,” Strong said. “I want to create a system that is inclusive.”