For kids living throughout Tucson, going to the neighborhood pool isn't just about cooling off; it's also about spending time with friends, taking swim lessons and (sometimes) staying out of trouble.
But this summer, fewer kids will be able to enjoy city pools.
Way back in January, the Tucson City Council told the Parks and Recreation Department to make some deep cuts—and one result was the closure of 17 of 27 neighborhood pools, leaving only 10 open for the summer season: those at ARC-Edith Ball Adaptive Recreation Center, Archer, Catalina, Clements, El Pueblo, Fort Lowell, Quincie Douglas, Sunnyside and Udall. Amphitheater Pool is closed for renovations, but is expected to reopen in July. (Go to cms3.tucsonaz.gov/parksandrec/aquatics for more information.)
Billy Sassi has worked as the city's Parks and Recreation aquatics program manager since 1980, and he says this is the most drastic cost-saving measure he's seen.
"It's very disheartening," Sassi says. "When the City Council made this decision, it was in December and January, when a lot of people aren't thinking about summer. People are going to be quite surprised to find their pool is closed."
It wasn't maintenance costs that forced the city to close most of the pools; it was staffing and utilities costs. Sassi says the city pools are well-maintained and usually just need a quick vacuum before opening.
"It was all about the budget and the bottom line," he says. "The good thing is the pools that remain open are fairly well-distributed around the city."
Still, the closures hurt.
Sassi estimates that city pools receive about 300,000 visits during the summer, and that last summer, almost 8,000 kids took swim lessons at those pools. This summer, the remaining pools will most likely be at capacity more often than usual, and Parks and Recreation will be able to offer swim lessons to less than half the number of kids. Sassi is also only going to be able to hire half the number of young people who work as lifeguards, swim teachers and counter staff.
On Friday, May 21, Bob Kovitz, the Parks and Recreation commissioner for Ward 6, joined two other commissioners to meet with local organizations and other pool users to come up with a list of alternatives to keep more pools open—although the suggestions they bring to Parks and Recreation may not come to fruition until the summer of 2011.
Kovitz says the six-person commission—with one representative from each ward—is only a recommending body to the City Council. They have no authority themselves.
"A couple of us as commissioners have taken it upon ourselves to create a forum so a lot of affected parties can talk about the situation. We are not here to second-guess the City Council or antagonize the City Council, but work together on alternatives," Kovitz says. "We will take a list to the Parks and Rec director and city manger, and ask for direction in asking them to take it further."
Parks and Rec director Fred Gray says the pool closures will help save between $550,000 to $600,000, primarily due to cuts in seasonal staff for each pool, and eliminating some fulltime supervisor positions, too.
"These have been very hard decisions," Gray says. But the pool closures are part of $2 million in cuts Gray says he's had to make in the past two years.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik reminds people that the entire city budget has taken a big hit.
"We're looking at the whole budget right now, and it's a huge problem, and more than just the pools," Kozachik says.
While trying to cut costs, Gray is also trying to keep Parks and Rec fees down and "still offer a modicum of services," Kozachik says. "... I just hope it doesn't get any worse. I understand that this is where kids go, and that more kids may be out on the street, but then the reality is we have a huge deficit that's been passed on to us by the state."
Sherry Armstrong says graffiti has been a problem in the Rita Ranch subdivision where she lives with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. The family is a big fan of the pool at Purple Heart Park, just down the street from their house. This summer, the pool will be closed, and Armstrong says more kids will be unsupervised, which may lead to more graffiti problems.
"My husband and I have always noticed this—that when kids are on break, the art goes on the walls. Other than the park and the pool, there's not much for kids to do around here," Armstrong says.
Armstrong's family has spent a lot of time together at the pool, as they've made sure her daughter learns water safety.
"Having swim lessons (was) real important for us for our daughter. Being that she's 6, we don't want her to lose the skills she learned last summer, and ... it only costs a few dollars for swim lessons for two weeks. At the YMCA, it's (a lot more)," she says. "The closures are going to be very hard for people, especially people who don't have transportation, like teenagers."
Edna Little Fish Spring is a member of local swim leagues for seniors, and credits swimming with saving her life. In the early 1990s, her surgeon forced her to swim regularly, and even came down to the pool to make sure she was there.
"I have kept it up ever since. I think it's important (the pools) stay open for people who want to swim and need to, but mostly for the kids," Spring says. "If you close these pools, the only swimmers swimming this summer are the rich white kids, and that is what I don't want to see happen. I want to see swimmers of all colors and all social backgrounds in the pools.
"I think they are making a big mistake. Kids who are not swimming are going to get into trouble. There are enough kids out there who are in trouble, and we don't need more."
Pima County recreation superintendent Joe Barr says he's glad word is getting out about the Tucson pool closures. He's been telling staff to expect an increase in the number of swimmers heading to Pima County pools (www.pima.gov/nrpr/pools/index.htm), especially if the remaining Tucson pools become crowded.
"We're really concerned that a lot of people don't know that most of the Tucson pools are going to be closed this summer, and we want to remind them that Pima County pools are going to be open," Barr says.
The county operates 10 pools during the summer, and seven of those pools are within the city limits. Barr says he recommends that swimmers take an extra look at the Flowing Wells and Los Niños pools, which often have open capacity during the summer.
Is the county planning on following Tucson by closing pools? Barr says his department plans on keeping all county pools fully operational for now—but he can't guarantee there won't be any closures in the future.
"We've been making cuts by not filling positions when people retire. But we've now done all we can," Barr says. "But it worked, and we didn't have to reduce aquatic programs."
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