May 7, 2009 in Opinion

Our View: Swimming should remain free for children

 

A recorded phone message at the Spokane Parks Department says that under the “best-case scenario,” Cannon and Shadle  Park swimming pools could be ready for use by Aug. 1. With warmer weather and summer vacation on the way, that’s a long time for Spokane youngsters to wait before their first dip.

However, it may be a moot issue for low-income kids if, once the city’s six renovated pools do begin to open, the Park Board charges children up to $2.50 to use them.

That idea didn’t go over well at this week’s hearing on the idea. It never has in the half-century that the concept has periodically been floated.

The board is talking about a split policy, charging an entry fee 24 hours a week but providing free swimming the other 20 hours that pools would be open. Such an arrangement softens the blow only a little. It invites confusion, and the economy hours would mesh better with some families’ schedules than with others’.

Like everyone else, the Park Board is facing economic challenges, despite its guaranteed 8 percent of the city’s general fund revenues.

In a news article published Wednesday, Spokesman-Review staff writer Jonathan Brunt traced the history of recurrent swimming fee proposals, and guess what? The idea surfaces when finances are stressed. But with one brief exception, in 1982, the temptation has been resisted, and the city has managed anyway.

After half a century, the arguments are largely familiar, particularly the concern that to some children, the dangerous currents of the Spokane River will beckon as a free alternative. And with today’s worry about childhood obesity, it’s worth adding that free swimming has fitness value.

Plus, there’s this. Spokane’s families are pinched, too, making the timing of a new policy especially harsh.

In reality, there is no such thing as free swimming. Someone pays, and traditionally that someone has been the people of Spokane. The same people who approved the Park Board’s request for a $43 million bond issue in 2007. The same people whose tax dollars maintain the community’s freely accessible neighborhood parks.

Park Board members have hinted that they will present a lower fee schedule next Thursday, but the idea of imposing any charge for kids to swim in Spokane’s municipal pools is a sharp break from the past.

The board can easily justify the proposal by pointing to other cities, where fees are the norm.

But free swimming for children is one of the features that distinguishes Spokane. Once it is abandoned, it is unlikely ever to be restored. This is a chance to show the city’s youngsters that they still merit special consideration.

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