City subsidies could be at an end for aging park facility

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The Buckman Pool has survived for 10 years on the parks bureau's chopping block; this year could be its last. Residents will rally again to save it. On Wednesday afternoon during Spring Break — on a day when kids and teens of all ages might be looking for something fun and free to do — the Buckman Pool sat nearly empty.

Two boys played on an inner tube while one lifeguard sat, watching from the deep end, while the other lifeguard welcomed the slow trickle of guests at the front desk.

Portland taxpayers pay $10.27 in general fund dollars per Buckman Pool user, per visit. That’s more than twice as much as the average pool subsidy of $4.99 per user. Grant Pool, at Grant High School, has the lowest subsidy, at $2.52.

For years, the Buckman Pool has been Portland Parks & Recreation’s most expensive pool to operate, with the lowest use.

Located in the basement of Buckman Arts Focus School at Southeast 16th Avenue and Pine Street, the pool is owned by Portland Public Schools but the city has operated it for the past 70 years.

Nearly every year for the past decade, the pool has landed on the chopping block during the city’s budget process. The parks bureau estimates it could save $88,762 per year if the city ceased to operate it.

Yet every year neighborhood residents rally to keep the pool open, a testament to the strength of that community’s voice.

To those residents, it’s a matter of getting their share.

“A complete and fully functioning community center at Washington High will not happen for 10 years with this economic climate,” writes Christine Yun, organizer of the “Save Buckman Pool” Facebook page and petition drive. “With the loss of Buckman Pool, the inner Southeast will lose its only parks facility providing programming for people of all ages and genders.”

Yun, an architect, helped rally pool supporters to testify at the March 12 community budget forum March 12 in North Portland. Another one is set for April 11, before Mayor Charlie Hales releases his proposed budget the week of April 29.

In past years most of the public outcry has come in the month of May just before the City Council approves the budget.

Built in 1921 in the basement of Buckman School, the Buckman Pool is a beloved community resource for good reason.

It was designed by architect Floyd Naramore, who also designed the Kennedy School and 14 others for PPS.

The low-ceilinged, pungent, chlorine-filled space is outdated but filled with cheery touches, including the colorful underwater mosaic adorning one wall, created by Buckman School students in 2006-07.

Buckman students swim at the pool during P.E., the Buckman swim team calls it home base, and swim lessons are the pool’s most popular time made sense in the past.

For decades, the city’s operation of the pool made sense.

According to the Parks 2020 vision, “By the time WWII started, Parks and Portland Public Schools had initiated a cooperative program of joint use. (PP&R) used 15 school buildings for courses and activities while granting schools the use of sports fields and tennis courts and offering archery and dance instruction to PPS students.”

According to Rich Gunderson, a retired PP&R recreation director who worked in the pools in 1962, PPS had three indoor pools at that time, where the Parks Bureau ran after-school swim programs. Those pools were Buckman, Couch and Shattuck; the latter two of which have since shut down.

Funding options

On Wednesday, during Spring Break, one adult swimmer came in to hang out with her son. The Buckman mother of four comes to the pool often and enjoys the convenience, she says. She remembers signing petitions to save the pool as long ago as when her son, now in eighth grade, was in kindergarten.

But over the years, she’s come to a new realization: “I’m one of the few who thinks it’s highly underutilized,” she says, declining to give her name for fear she’d be harassed by her neighbors.

“Our fiscal resources are stretched. Even on free days, there’s maybe 10 kids” here.

According to the City Budget Office, the pool had 23,712 visits from 522 users last year, resulting in an average subsidy of $6.75 per visit, or $306 per use each year.

The pool is the only one to offer gender-only swims — but they’re not particularly well attended. An average of five women and two men take advantage of those time slots per week.

If the pool did cease to operate, other PP&R options for Buckman Pool users would be the Matt Dishman Community Center, 2.2 miles away, or the East Portland Community Center, 5.1 miles away.

The budget office acknowledges the passion of the Buckman community: “Over time, the user base has been vocal and engaged and has a clear emotional investment in the facility,” wrote budget analyst Claudio Campuzano.

The budget office, then, is recommending that supporters work with the Parks Bureau and school district on the possibility of keeping the pool open through a community-based agreement.

The largest component of the PP&R cost is staffing — one full-time recreation coordinator and one seasonal lifeguard.

If the pool were operated privately and unstaffed, the budget office proposes, costs would drop below the current program revenue.

Another option that would allow the pool to stay open is to charge users $6.75 per visit, create an annual membership charge, or some combination of the two.

The Parks Bureau, along with every other city bureau, was asked to submit a budget request at 90 percent of its current appropriation level. That 10 percent chunk of cuts equals $4.6 million less than the full $46.2 million appropriation level.

Besides the Buckman Pool, other items on the parks chopping block include ceasing full-time operation of the Sellwood Community Center and ending operations at three of the 11 PP&R-operated SUN Schools.

Parks also may end or reduce the “pass-through” funding to other facilities including the Linnton Community Center, Leach Botanical Garden, the Multnomah County-operated District Senior Center program, and the county-run SUN Schools program.

The potential changes raise larger questions, according to the City Budget Office: “What services are core to the bureau’s mission? Where do they deliver them? To whom? And at what cost?”

There are two chances for public input on the budget process:

A community budget forum is planned from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 11, at Montgomery Park, 2701 N.W. Vaughn St.

City Council will hold a hearing on the mayor’s proposed budget, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. May 16, at City Hall, 1221 S.W. Fourth Ave.

For more information on the parks budget, visit www.portland