May 14, 2009 in City

Spokane ends free swimming for kids

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Park Board vote approving $1 swim fees on kids Yes: Bob Apple, Randy Cameron, Gary Lawton, Kimberly Morse, Jim Santorsola, Elizabeth Schoedel, Larry Stanley, Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter Not present: Ross Kelley, Steve McNutt, Jim Quigley Expected pool openings: July 1: Shadle and A.M. Cannon Aug. 1: Hillyard and Comstock Sept. 1: Liberty Sept. 15: Witter

Spokane’s long history of free swimming for kids is over.

The Spokane Park Board on Thursday voted to impose a $1 per visit fee on swimmers younger than 18, just in time for its six new pools to open this summer. Adult prices will remain unchanged at $2.

Park officials say while fees aren’t necessary to balance the budget this year, the revenue is needed by 2011 to prevent cuts elsewhere.

“The operational cost is going to be higher right from the get-go,” said Board Member Larry Stanley, noting the need to hire extra lifeguards because of added pool features like slides.The prospect of swimming fees was unpopular at three hearings held this spring. Opponents say the city’s pools give kids safe summer activities and should be supported by taxes rather than fees, pointing out that Spokane managed to keep free swimming even while suffering through the Great Depression.

“There are going to be kids that just won’t be able to go, period. Those are the ones I worry about,” said West Central Neighborhood Council Chairwoman Brenda Corbett, who added that the board should have waited a year to better explore other funding options.

Earlier this spring, the park department proposed charging kids $2.50 during about half of the 44 hours pools will be open. Last week, park staff members e-mailed board members a new concept that would have avoided fees on kids until 2010. But Board Member Elizabeth Schoedel said Thursday that the time to start fees is when the new pools open.

At a meeting on Monday, Schoedel said the original $2.50 fee proposal wasn’t too much given the rates charged by other communities. Spokane County, for instance, charges $6 for children 6 and up at its two newest pools.

She added that if kids pay to use pools, they likely will feel more of an ownership in them and treat them better.

“It’s not about the money for me. It’s about respect,” Schoedel said. “We’ve got a lot of vandalism at our facilities.”

Board member Kimberly Morse argued that the fees should be delayed to compensate the public for late pool openings. No other board member spoke in favor of a delay, and Schoedel’s proposal passed unanimously.

“I know that this is going to be tough on some families,” said Morse, who said she voted in favor of the fees because they’ll be needed to help overcome budget shortfalls in coming years.

Park Board President Gary Lawton announced that two of the city’s new six pools will open July 1. The rest will open in August and September. The city’s outdoor pools are being rebuilt with money from increased property taxes approved by voters in 2007.

Since it first opened pools in 1914, Spokane has only charged kids to swim during one summer – in 1982. Free swimming, however, is rare in Washington. Among the seven largest cities in the state, Spokane is the only one that has public pools that don’t charge kids.

Thursday’s vote marks at least the fourth time since the mid 1960s that the Park Board has created swim fees on kids. Each previous time, the board reversed itself after public pressure or lobbying from City Council.

The charges will be in effect during all hours of swimming, unless the park department finds sponsorships to cover the fees. The board directed staff to create a family and season pass system that would make the pools cheaper for those who frequently use the pools.

Last year, the city spent $602,000 to operate 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. No estimate for how much the new fee is expected to raise was available Thursday.

Park Board member Jim Santorsola vowed that the parks department will create aide programs to ensure all kids will be able to use the pools.

Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple said he expects the city’s new pools to be extremely busy, like Spokane County’s two new aquatics centers.

“The demand on these pools is going to be unbelievable so to some degree we have to try to limit, and I think (charging) is, unfortunately, the method,” Apple said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442


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