Newton tests swimming pool waters

To swim or not to swim?

That is the question facing Newton city leaders for the second straight year.

Tight fiscal times are making the decision to open the Newton Recreation Department swimming pool a difficult one.

"We did not open the pool last year because of budgetary constraints, and we talked about how we would try to open it again this year," said Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax. "I think we need to open the swimming pool."

Council member Mary Bess Lawing wants to see the pool opened again, as well.

"That is part of what taxpayers pay for. That is something they can see a use for," she said. "There are many children in this city who have no access to a pool and many adults. If we need to take money from somewhere else, that pool needs to be open."

Opening the pool will require a hefty investment by the city. Newton City Manager Todd Clark said it will cost about $65,000 to open and operate the pool throughout the fiscal year that begins July 1. If the pool is going to open in time to serve swimmers during the 10-week season of summer 2011, Newton could face an additional bill of up to $23,000.

"In order to open the swimming pool ... we have to bring some things into compliance," said Newton Recreation Director Sandra Waters.

Among needed improvements required by the county's health department is a taller fence, Waters said. The pool is currently enclosed by a 3-foot tall fence, but it needs to be 5-feet tall, she said. Adding sufficient height to 111 feet of the fence would cost $3,000, she said.

Waters said the county's health department has "asked" the city to make other improvements, including the addition of a handicapped-accessible ramp for the pool at a cost of $8,000 and improvements to the stainless steel gutter around the pool at a cost of $12,000. Waters could not say whether those improvements would be mandatory for the pool to open.
The city previously completed a couple of rounds of repair projects. In 2008, Newton completed $9,800 in renovations to improve drain safety, as required by new federal legislation.

Before that, in 2006, the city completed $140,000 in renovations to the pool's floor and pump system, as required by state regulations. Those pool improvements also added fiberglass steps, depth markings on the pool sides and deck, and a $34,000 two-flume slide structure.

Following those comprehensive renovations, in summer 2007, the pool saw attendance increase 71 percent and revenue increase 25 percent, Newton Recreation Department officials told City Council in late July 2007.
For the summer ahead, that kind of rebound might be tough to achieve, Waters said.

"(Summer camps) start in June, and they will be inquiring next month," she said. "That is another issue we will be faced with. Being closed for the (2010) summer, they have gone other places."

Uncertainty over other programs, such as Catawba County Community Schools, could further dampen attendance for the swimming pool, she said. Further, usage during the weekends and later in the summer typically declines, Waters said.

With those factors in mind, Waters created a conservative revenue estimate for Council members. According to that estimate, she expects the pool to collect $2,800 during four operational weeks in June, including $1,300 collected from day campers using the pool. If those estimates are spread out during the summer season, and revenues remain steady, the pool could yield $7,000 in revenue.

If the pool doesn't open during the summer ahead, the city will still need to invest $12,000-$16,000 per year to keep water and chemicals in the pool to maintain the facility. Alternately, the city could permanently close the pool.

"If the city is at a point where it is not going to have a swimming pool anymore, we need to decide that," Mullinax said. "We need to decide, are we going to have a pool or not have a pool?"

Facing an annual expense of about $65,000 — not including $23,000 in "worst-case" scenario renovations that Waters said are required — Newton Mayor Pro Tem Anne Stedman said the operation is expensive.

"To commit $65,000 to the pool every year is a lot of money," she said, adding she is not ready to "cover it up." "I think the pool is a great thing to have. It is just very expensive."

Newton City Council directed Waters to find out exactly what the county's health department will require for Newton to open the pool, as well as a renovation cost estimate.

"Find out what you have to spend," Mullinax said. "We will call a meeting; we will come back; and the Council will decide."