Local news

Pool construction could finish early

Officials are weighing free swimming for kids

Spokane kids probably won’t have to wait until August to jump into at least a couple of the city’s six new swimming pools.

And they may not have to pay either.

Spokane park leaders say pool construction has sped up in recent weeks, and Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple said he expects at least two of the city’s six new pools to open in late June or early July.

Also, the Spokane Park Board will consider a fee plan next week that would maintain the city’s tradition of free swimming for kids – at least for a year.

Park Board President Gary Lawton stressed that the most recent fee proposal, which was sent this week to board members from park staff, is “very preliminary” and could change before Thursday, when a vote is expected.

The new fee concept suggests charging children nothing in 2009 and maintaining the city’s $2 fee for adults. That’s a significant departure from an earlier fee schedule that suggested charging kids $2.50 during 24 of the 44 hours pools would be open each week. That plan also called for a $5 charge on adults.

Public outcry in Spokane over various fee proposals floated by the Park Board in the past half century succeeded in making Spokane the only one of the seven largest Washington cities to forgo pool charges for minors. But free swimming is not unheard of. New York and Los Angeles, for instance, also provide free pool access to kids.

Supporters of free swimming note that some of the city’s pools are in low-income neighborhoods. They argue that aquatics provide kids positive summertime activities and that taxes should be able to cover the expense – just as they have for all but one of the past 95 years or so.

Some park leaders, however, say the tradition pulls resources from other park activities that also benefit low-income families. They argue a system could be created to ensure that financially struggling families would continue to receive free access to the pools. Officials also point out that the original plan released this year would have added 13 hours a week to pool schedules while still keeping some of them free.

Rob Crow, a former city councilman who campaigned in favor of the 2007 bond that is financing the rebuilding of five city pools and construction of a sixth, said he likes the idea of delaying charges on kids for at least a year.

Crow, who sits on the Park Bond Citizen Advisory Committee, said a delay would make it clear that fees aren’t tied to the construction of new pools. He added that he could support charges in the future if the system ensured access to everyone.

The new fee plan under consideration by the board suggests that a $1 fee for kids be created in 2010 but that the department would “aggressively” pursue sponsorships to cover fees. At a Park Board subcommittee meeting Thursday, members discussed ways – in the event fees are implemented – of identifying kids who can’t afford to pay without singling them out.

The board will meet Monday to continue discussions on fees.

Park Director Barry Russell said this week that the department would make a special announcement about the pools Thursday. He declined to provide further information and didn’t return calls seeking comment Friday.

A tough winter caused construction delays on the pools, and by March officials predicted that none of the pools would open before August.

But Apple, who serves on the Park Board, said he’s hopeful that because of recent gains by construction crews, at least a couple of pools will open much closer to the end of the school year, which is June 17 for students in Spokane Public Schools.

He warned, however: “There’s always something that can crush that optimism.”

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