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City reluctant to continue funding Aquatic Center

"If people are not using that pool, we are not paying for it any more." - City Manager Dan Huff


by: JIM BESEDA - An evening aquatic fitness class draws a good number of participants every week at the Molalla Aquatic Center. The city has drastically reduced hours of operation for the pool and eliminated staff positions. But City Manager Dan Huff said it will reinstate some of the reduced hours for the summer.Lately, rumors have run rampant about what the city plans to do with the Molalla Aquatic Center — and the biggest question for Molalla-area folks seems to be, will the city close the pool?

Thursday, City Manager Dan Huff gave his answer to that question.

“It is really not about closing the pool, but about finding a more equitable way to pay for the pool so that all people using the pool share in the costs,” Huff said. “But I think it is important to answer the question. We put the pool in the city budget for six months, hoping the Friends of the Pool will have success in putting an aquatic district together. We will support the pool this calendar year — through Dec. 31, 2014 — and then we have to make a decision.”

His big hope, Huff said, is that the newly formed Friends of the Pool organization will be successful in creating a South Clackamas Aquatic District and getting a pool operations levy on the November ballot that voters would pass. If that happens, then everyone in the Molalla River School District would share equally in helping to support the pool.

Contract between city and school district.

Huff acknowledged that the aquatic center contract between the city and the Molalla River School District is binding, but he said he may talk to the school board about possibly amending the agreement to meet current conditions.

According to the 2001 contract, the school district paid for construction of the aquatic center and the city agreed to pay for its operation. Now the city wants out of the agreement.

“If I had my way the agreement with the school district would go in the trash,” Huff said.

What needs to be done next is for the Friends of the Pool to be successful in getting the district formation and an aquatic center operating levy on the ballot, and passed by the voters in November, he said. Then, the new South Clackamas Aquatic District board could make an agreement with the Molalla River School District on running the pool and make an operations agreement with the city. At that point, the city would agree to continue operating the pool.

“We would do that the same way we are doing it now, only the funding would come from the South Clackamas Aquatic District,” he said. “But I can’t talk about things that may occur in negotiations with the school district. And Friends of the Pool can’t solve that problem. My hope is we can reach an understanding of where we are going with the pool. That’s the crux of the issue — 8,200 people in the city of Molalla are paying to keep the pool open, with 19,000 people in the school district who pay nothing except their admission price when they come to swim.”

Huff said if the Colton School District joined in, that would make more than 20,000 people living in the South Clackamas Aquatic District.

“That’s a good operation base, with an operation levy to subsidize the funding of the pool operations,” he said. “If that happens, the city would consider making a grant on an annual basis to help operate the pool — say about $100,000.”

The solution lies with Friends of the Pool?

Since the city government will not go for a levy to fund the pool and it can not create an aquatic district outside city limits, Huff said the solution for pool financing could lie with the Friends of the Pool organization

“The Friends of the Pool need to do what they are doing now to make that happen,” he said. “People should not forget that since 2008, when the recession hit, we are looking at a different day today — how local government operates financially. If people are not using that pool, we are not paying for it any more.”

The pool as a business

The city now wants to focus on paying for what Huff calls “core issues:” streets, sidewalks, water, and sewer. “So if that’s the case, what do we do with the pool?” he said. “And that’s the question.”

Huff said the city must run the pool as a business. “I don’t want to put any more general fund dollars into that pool,” he said. “So for 2014-15 fiscal year, I want to increase the general fund transfer. So we will be looking at this in December — looking at the hours of operation. And the only way to reduce costs is to reduce the number of lifeguards.”

He said lifeguards at the Molalla Aquatic Center are paid minimum wage.

The city has drastically reduced the hours of operation for the pool. And as Huff sees it, not enough people are using the pool, and people living within the city limits are paying for the whole thing. He said he would like another entity to take over funding of the pool.

“My hope will be the Friends of the Pool get enough energy behind them to create the South Clackamas Aquatic District,” he said. “I can’t speak for the city council, but I am hoping the Friends of the Pool will actually make some headway on their efforts.

"I guarantee the city council will not put out a levy this year for city residents to pay for the pool. And if no one wants to pay for the pool, what do we do with the pool? If we don’t want to pay for something, we won’t.”

Huff said the city could, however, create a supplemental budget to keep the pool open after December.

“If the Friends of the Pool doesn’t get anywhere, and they find no support in the area to form a district — if they find that people just do not want to pay for a pool, then we have to ask the question. Does this make sense to continue to support a facility people don’t want to pay for? Two times the people said we don’t want to pay for it, and if we ask them a third time, they will still say no. So what are we going to do?”

Summer hours

Over summer vacation, the city will expand the hours of operation so that kids will have a pool to swim in during the day.

“We are ramping up for summer and are bringing people in,” he said. “That means user fees will look good for the summer, with more hours of operation, but that sill won’t cut into the $300,000. If everybody in the district paid the $4.75 monthly fee city residents pay, we would not be having this discussion.”