Spokane’s long history of free swimming for kids is over.
The Spokane Park Board on Thursday voted to impose a fee of $1 a visit on swimmers younger than 18, just in time for its six new pools to open this summer. Adult prices will remain at $2.
Park officials say that 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 such as slides.
The prospect of swimming fees was unpopular at three hearings held this spring. Opponents say the city’s pools give children a safe summer activity and should be supported by taxes rather than fees, pointing out that Spokane managed to keep free swimming even during 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. She said 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 each week. Last week, park staff members e-mailed board members a proposal that would have put off charging kids to swim until 2010. But board member Elizabeth Schoedel said Thursday that the time to start fees is when the new pools open.
At a meeting Monday, Schoedel said the original $2.50 fee proposal wasn’t too high given rates charged by other communities. Spokane County charges $6 for kids 6 and older at its two newest pools.
She said if children pay to use pools, they are more likely to feel ownership of 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 pretty 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.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Park Board President Gary Lawton said 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, only Spokane doesn’t charge kids to use public pools.
But Thursday’s vote marks at least the fourth time since the mid-1960s that the Park Board has imposed swim fees on children. 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 to make the pools cheaper for those who frequently use them.
Last year, the city spent $602,000 to operate five pools and generated about $124,000 in revenue 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 said the park department will create aid programs so 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.