OPINION: Pool closure a symptom of city's funding crisis
The Sandy City Council found itself in an unenviable situation in mid March, being the bearer of bad news that the city lacks the funding it needs to operate the Olin Y. Bignall Aquatic Center.
This means children, families and others who depend on the pool for recreation, swim lessons and fitness will need to go elsewhere beginning June 1, just in time for summer break from schools.
The city government is dead center in the eye of the metaphorical financial hurricane:
• A wastewater treatment plant incapable of meeting the needs of Sandy's growing population, which could cost $56 million or more to replace;
• A police department facing a $400,000 budgetary shortfall and staffing levels that come up short for a town of Sandy's size and population; and,
• A public swimming pool needing $10 million in upgrades to make it truly operational, but which would still run at a financial deficit with the renovation.
Faced with these three realities, we think the city government made the correct decision by ranking public safety and critical infrastructure ahead of a swimming pool that serves 10 percent of the city's population.
But still, this had to be a gut-wrenching decision. Nobody wants to be the person — or the city councilor — who shuts down a swimming pool. Blaming city councilors or the local government won't help. This wasn't their fault.
This community quickly needs to get over the disappointment of the pool closure, and get on with the task of figuring out long-term solutions to these problems. Ultimately, every citizen needs to understand that it boils down to one unavoidable bottomline — M-O-N-E-Y, lots and lots of M-O-N-E-Y. Those dollars won't just appear out of thin air.
For Sandy to raise the type of revenue it needs for a modern wastewater treatment facility — a Department of Environmental Quality requirement if the city hopes to avoid costly fines — residents could see their wastewater bills increase by $40 to $90 a month.
For police services, the city might opt for adding a $7 to $10 monthly surcharge on the utility bill, which would offset the shortfall in the police budget. This isn't uncommon. Just look to the city of Gresham, which does the same thing.
Until those things are taken care of, don't expect the pool to reopen. This might tend to support former Sandy Mayor Bill King's recent comment on social media that "If and when the pool closes, I do not believe it will ever open again." Maybe. We'll see.
Once wastewater and law enforcement funding is stabilized, the city could turn its attention to the issue of refitting the public swimming pool.
One suggestion has been to propose a bond measure. That's laughable considering the bond debt this community has shouldered for the new high school and other school improvements. Community support for a bond measure will be, to say the least, a hard sell.
Another suggestion has been formation of a parks district. Think of it like the Sandy Fire District, just another independent local taxing entity that would derive its funding from property taxes.
Would it increase property taxes? Hmmm, that's complicated. Based on Oregon's voter-approved cap on property tax, it might not increase property taxes, but it also might result in fewer dollars going to other taxing entities, such as schools, city government and other special districts. The parks district would go to the voters for approval. Assuming the district passed, it could provide long-term and stable funding for a pool renovations and operations.
So assuming the Sandy city government solves its funding crisis for the wastewater system and its police department, the next push would be a campaign to approve a parks district. If that's the route taken — and if everything went as planned — it might be 2021 before that pool reopens.
Sorry Sandy, this isn't a rosy financial picture for what's ahead.
In the meantime, Mt. Hood Community College offers swim lessons and open swim opportunities at its aquatic center. Spring swim classes are full, so look for summer-class enrollment to begin in the second half of May. Visit the acquatic center's website for pricing and online registration.