Rob Romancier has a favorite photograph. It shows a pile of walkers, canes and wheelchairs on the cement landing deck of a community pool — their owners in the pool, smiling, happy, free.
“They couldn’t do much of what they’re doing in the pool on land because it hurts,” said Romancier, the city of Albany's aquatic recreation programs manager said. “Gravity sucks.”
The Albany Community Pool, located in the shadow of South Albany High School, hosts swim lessons, exercise classes, swim meets, a swimathon and senior classes that allow those aches and pains to disappear, if just for an hour.
But as the Albany City Council dives in to find ways to avoid drowning in budgetary shortfalls during the next budget cycle, very few city-sponsored amenities are safe from elimination — including the pool.
During a June 19 meeting, city councilors were given a list of about a dozen suggestions to generate revenue and cut costs. The suggestions originated from previous council discussions as well as staff research and included things from a soda tax to instituting a $200 per bed fee for assisted living facilities. The council requested additional information on several suggestions, including closing the pool.
Albany isn’t alone in attempting to balance the cost of a community pool with community safety and other services. In Sweet Home last year, voters renewed a levy set at 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value to continue operating the community pool, which is located inside the city’s high school. The levy was deemed the the best of three proposed options, which included forming an aquatic district and a city-takeover.
“An aquatic district would have increased property tax compression for the city of Sweet Home’s police and library levies so the aquatic committee ruled that option out,” said Kevin Strong, the city’s business manager. “The city was not in a financial position to operate the pool so that option was ruled out.”
The first levy passed in 2012 and was approved for two years. It’s since been renewed for a five-year period twice since then.
In Corvallis, the Osborn Aquatic Center is owned by the school district but operated and maintained by the city and gets its funding through user fees, a local option levy set at just over $1 per $1,000 of assessed home value and the city’s general fund. Aquatics Center Supervisor Todd Wheeler said the pool is a draw for swimmers from as far away as Salem and Eugene and operates on a $1.7 million annual budget.
In Philomath, plans to renovate the Clemens Community Pool have been frozen after serious structural issues were discovered. (See related story below.)
Now, the city of Albany finds itself facing costs that are outpacing revenues and community needs that are growing with the population, it may also examine changes to pool ownership, its operation or closing it all together.
“About 15 years ago, the school district was not able to keep enough teachers and were looking at budget cuts,” Romancier said. At the time, Romancier was an employee of the Greater Albany Public Schools district; after the city stepped in to save the pool, he became an employee of Albany.
The city and school have a lease that allows the school district 800 hours of use at the pool, free of charge. It means swim teams can practice there and the district can hold water polo matches and a water awareness program for third, fourth and fifth graders without having to pay for the use of the facility. The district does, however, shoulder the responsibility for structural issues with the building. In 2017, the school district passed a $159 million bond with $1.2 million going toward a new roof for the pool building, boilers and updating the ventilation. Daily operation and maintenance, such as a new pump for the hot tub, are funded by the city.
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Romancier said the Albany Community Pool sees about 93,000 users each year.
“My budget is $900,000 a year,” Romancier said, noting that figure included the COOL Pool and the paddle boats on Waverly Lake. “We estimate we bring in about $300,000 in economic impact for the city.”
That impact, he said, comes in the form of hotel stays and restaurant visits during swim meets and some of the other 13 larger events held at the pool each year.
But the added tourism dollars hasn’t kept the pool off the council’s radar as it takes a serious look at cutting costs and, if the city were to opt to close the pool, the city's other pool, the seasonal COOL Pool, would remain open.
“Conversations I’ve been a part of, the Albany Community Pool is the one being suggested to close,” said Parks & Recreation Department Manager Kim Lyddane said. The COOL Pool, which shares part of that annual $900,000 pool budget, covers its costs and isn’t currently part of the conversation.
“Being seasonal, it does a great job of generating revenue through registration and entrance fees,” Lyddane said. (It's unusual for indoor pools to cover their costs from activity fees, in large part because they cost more to operate.)
The Lebanon Community Pool also uses registration and activity fees to fund its pool but only to the tune of about 25%. The remainder comes from taxpayers.
“The pool was funded by the school district and was always on the chopping block,” said Aquatics Director Lorlee Engler.
In 2000, the community formed a special district and levied 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value to fund the operation of the pool, which leases its space from the local high school.
“I can’t express enough gratitude and thanks to the community for forming the special district because it really gave this pool stable ground,” Engler said, noting that the Lebanon pool had a unique advantage lobbying for the special district. “We’re the only pool in town.”
The city of Albany funds the Albany Community Pool and the COOL Pool but they’re not the only public pools within the city. The Mid-Valley YMCA operates an indoor pool year-round, in addition to a water slide, diving board and swim and exercise classes. Use of the pool generally requires a membership with the YMCA or a day pass.
The Albany City Council is expected to discuss revenue generating and cost cutting options again during its Wednesday, Aug. 28 meeting at 7:15 p.m. in City Hall.