To Willie H. Richey, charging swim fees in public pools wasn’t the way to solve park budget shortfalls.
“Let us not get too shortsighted and slap the poor in the face,” he told the Spokane Park Board. “The poor need the pools’ use the most – and can afford it the least.”
That was 1969.
Forty years later, Richey’s comments mirror testimony given Tuesday evening at a Park Board hearing on the latest proposal to charge kids to swim in city pools.
Since at least the 1950s, Spokane has debated – often with intense passion – about whether fees should be charged.
Almost 20 people spoke at Tuesday’s hearing on pool fees. All but one opposed the imposition of any fees on youth.
Park leaders have said their most recent plan strikes a balance between keeping parks accessible to the poor and staying with their budget. Their plan would keep pools open 44 hours a week and charge kids a $2.50 entry fee during 24 of those hours. Last year, pools were open 31 hours a week with no fees for kids.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Park Director Barry Russell referred to the proposal in the past tense. He said a new fee schedule is in the works. But he said details won’t be shared until it’s presented May 14.
“It’s going to have a lot of moving parts,” said Park Board member Randy Cameron, who predicted that if fees are charged, they will be less than the proposed $2.50 for children and $5 for adults. “There’s no way it will be that much,” he said.
Josie Dix, a Spokane Parks Foundation board member, testified that it’s time for the city to begin charging kids to swim like most other cities and counties. She said the department and foundation should be able to create scholarship programs that will ensure that low-income families will continue to have access to the pools.
Karen Bell, former chairwoman of the Northwest Neighborhood Council, said park leaders should take pride in Spokane’s tradition of being one of the few places to offer free swimming for kids.
“They seem to think that because Spokane doesn’t charge for pools that we’re ignorant,” said Bell, who serves on the Parks Bond Citizens Advisory Committee and noted that taxes paid by Spokane residents have maintained swimming pools for a century. “I believe that they need to stop coming back for the same old thing. The answer is no. The public wants free swimming.”
Ariel Garcia told the board that she often takes her four children to Liberty Pool. She’s a full-time student and her husband recently lost his job, she said.
“There’s not a lot of activities for families that are free,” Garcia said. If fees are created, “I would never be able to take my kids.”
In 2007, voters approved a $43 million bond, most of which is devoted to rebuilding the city’s five outdoor pools and building a new one at Shadle Park.
Russell said park officials never promised that pool fees were off the table if the bond was approved.
But many at Tuesday’s hearing said they never would have supported the measure had they known fees might be charged.
In the past half-century, the Park Board has voted at least three times to charge fees, only later to reverse itself after intense outcry from the public, the City Council or both. In 1972, for instance, a citizens group gathered enough signatures to put the matter on the May ballot, and 72 percent of voters agreed to end the fees, which ranged from 15 to 50 cents, just in time for summer opening of outdoor pools.
The only time kids paid for swimming in the summer was 1982.
That was two years after voters agreed to lift their ban on charging swim fees. Even so, public outcry and a push by City Council and Mayor Jim Chase persuaded the Park Board to change course on fees on kids, though charges on adults were kept.
Just as arguments in opposition to swim fees remain the same, so are arguments supporting the fees.
“The fact is we are still lacking adequate funds to operate the pools. We find no other solution,” said Dr. David W. Gaiser, Park Board president in 1971.