Sinking Swimmers

Skyrocketing city pool fees are leaving many high and dry.

Lawrence Quilici is semi-retired from the Nevada prison system, where he worked as a chaplain and counselor. Far more difficult is his current job: to bring comfort to those who need it most at a Tucson hospice as a counselor.

One of the comforts for this giver is to rise early, drive south, strap on hand paddles and goggles, and immerse himself in the cool water of the city's Fred Archer Pool on the westside.

In a stroke as soothing and deliberate as his voice, Quilici moves through a lane in the typical counter-clockwise fashion. End to end. Seventy-two times. A mile.

"It's what I need to relieve the stress. You get into a rhythm," said Quilici, 61. "We don't swim for the fun of it. We swim for the health of it. What else are we going to do in this heat? Walk in the mall? We can't even go to Summerhaven. This is a cool way of exercising."

Weary of racquetball's punishment, Quilici brought his body to water. And after churning in small health club pools, he settled on Archer, 1665 S. La Cholla Blvd. He and his wife, Kathy, are loyal to the pool and its staff, handing out suggestions and compliments to lifeguards and managers.

City Hall doesn't much care, though.

Under plans pitched by City Manager James Keene and approved by Republican Mayor Bob Walkup and his usual City Council majority of Republicans Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar and Democrat Carol West, fees paid by Quilici and his pool mates have skyrocketed. They will increase again in three weeks.

Quilici, in Tucson since 1990, paid $40 for an annual pass as recently as 1999. Beginning Aug. 14, the annual pass will cost $400. Where swimmers could use one of the 26 municipal plunges for 50 cents a day, daily admission has been bumped to $2--and will go to $3 on Aug. 14.

In return, swimmers face reduced hours and full-month shutdowns of pools on a rotating basis that forced Quilici to "schlep last year to the Catalina pool on Dodge Boulevard."

Keene's tinkering, spun as one of numerous methods to balance the city's $945 million budget, also slapped young swimmers. Lessons now carry a $10 price tag. Daily admission for youth, 17 and younger, is up from a quarter to 75 cents.

At the dais and on the stump, West, who represents some of Tucson's more affluent neighborhoods on the northeast side, said the economically disadvantaged would not be shut out of the pools because of sliding scale admissions.

That has done little to stanch the flow of kids from swimming lessons at city pools. From free to $10, the city's swimming and pool-safety lessons have taken a beating.

After above-average participation in lessons last year, attendance has dived 31 percent, from 8,507 to 5,830 through the four sessions, according to figures provided by Billy Sassi, the city's longtime director of aquatics.

It didn't take long for dissenting council members like Democrat Steve Leal to connect swim fees with more grandiose budget plans--such as a potential $1 million break for Tucson Electric Power from the city's controversial new use tax.

"I'm glad that the majority found compassion. It is not for kids who want to go swimming this summer but for the wealthy shareholders of a privileged corporation," said Leal, the council's senior member with 14 years representing southside Ward 5. "We should have Mr. Keene tell us where we're going to get that $1 million, out of what programs. I mean, we're already closing pools and raising KidCo (recreation and after-school program) fees."

Even Sassi concedes that the new fees are driving people like Quilici to health clubs or the Y.

"For my fee, I get a lane, sometimes to share, one of the three spigots in the shower and a hair blower," Quilici said without complaint.

Quilici is trying to get city officials to consider a senior swim fee, much like the discounts offered for decades to golfers and tennis players.

He included the idea in a letter to Bob Martin, the longtime functionary who was elevated to acting director of Parks and Recreation after the death of Dan Felix. The response was cooler than ice water. Martin addressed the need for the increase, but was silent on the proposal for senior pricing.

"Instead of offering a senior rate, they talk about the sliding fee," Quilici said. "You have to be near poverty to qualify."

If he signs up for the city pass at $400, Quilici will pay nearly four times for swimming what he pays in city property taxes for his westside home.

At Archer pool, Kathy Quilici feels for neighborhood parents who can't afford to send their kids to the pool. The water slide is in place, but on some days, it gets little use. She, too, offers city budget advice.

"If we're going to be charged so much, I would prefer that children swim for free," she said. "There is nothing else for them to do in this heat."