Budget cuts have closed, slashed hours, raised fees at Tampa city swimming pools

Kids in the After Kicks camp program play at Interbay Pool in South Tampa. It closed in 2009 for repairs. It reopened this summer with reduced hours.

LARA CERRI | Times

Kids in the After Kicks camp program play at Interbay Pool in South Tampa. It closed in 2009 for repairs. It reopened this summer with reduced hours.

TAMPA — Christina Gesmundo loved to swim in the Cuscaden Pool, a block from her home — until last year, that is, when it sprung leaks after a renovation.

"I think it's a shame that it wasn't repaired correctly and is still closed," Gesmundo, 36, said of the pool in V.M. Ybor.

Carol Cameron started swimming at Interbay Pool in 2004, at a therapist's recommendation to treat back pain. Admission was free. The pool, in the Culbreath Heights area, was open 60 hours a week and heated in the winter.

"It was absolutely perfect," said Cameron, 72. "I have to swim."

But Interbay, along with a couple of other city pools, was closed for repairs in 2009. It reopened this summer, but for only 19 hours each week.

Now, Gesmundo and Cameron are among many swimmers feeling crimped by tightened budgets that have cut funds for pools across the country.

The result: shorter hours and locked gates.

In Tampa, the struggle surfaced recently after East Tampa residents alleged discrimination because the city reopened Interbay, while their neighborhood pool at Williams Park remained closed. A report released this week estimated it would cost $6.7 million to repair Williams and two other closed pools.

Municipal governments nationwide have drained pools in recent years, said Bill Beckner, research manager for the National Recreation and Park Association. But most have been reopened after community swimmers complained.

"It's one of those things that sounded good in January, but then when it actually comes to summer …" Beckner said. Public pools where people can safely learn to tread water and swim are a core government service.

Without pools, people go to bays or rivers, which are not as safe, he said.

In Pasco County, administrators are struggling to keep two pools open after closing others in New Port Richey and Zephyrhills in the past two years.

Tampa, meanwhile, has nine pools open this summer, three of which are open year-round. Several years ago, the city operated seven pools year-round.

Back then, admission was free, which Beckner said was unusual nationally. Most pools have charged a nominal fee for a long time, he said. Now, he says, parks and recreation departments are being asked to increase the amount of money they bring in.

In October 2009, Tampa started charging $2 for children and seniors and $4 for adults. The alternative: Guests can buy seasonal swim passes at $25 per person or $75 for a family.

To save even more money, the city adjusted pool hours after looking at peak use times and closed Interbay Pool for the past two summers, according to parks department spokeswoman Linda Carlo.

While Interbay was closed, Cameron sought attendance records and operating costs from administrators and wrote a letter to the mayor.

This summer when the pool reopened, she still wasn't happy.

Initially, "They opened it for a paltry 12 hours a week," she said. The city has since added another seven hours.

Cameron, however, thinks it should be open a minimum of 24 to 30 hours per week.

Since 2007, the city has cut $12 million from the parks and recreation budget, resulting in the loss of 200 positions, Carlo said in an e-mail.

"As a result we have had to restructure our organization and the way we do business," she said.

Currently, Tampa spends about $1.55 million to operate nine seasonal and year-round pools.

Nationally, Beckner said, operating costs range from $30,000 to $100,000 or more, per pool, just during the summer.

Still, the department strives to provide services equitably across the city and to meet patrons' demands, Carlo said.

Cameron says the department's supervisors don't communicate well with neighborhoods. "I think pools became like the stepchild that didn't get as much attention," she said.

The city is conducting an aquatic study on all Tampa pools, with results expected in the next few months, Carlo said.

It will address closed pools that may never be reopened, such as Angus Goss next to Memorial Middle School in Old Seminole Heights, and Cuscaden and Jenkins, the city's historic pools, which are closed for renovations.

The city's "conditions report" estimated repairs at Jenkins at $4 million, while Cuscaden would cost about $1.5 million, according to David Vaughn, the city's contract administration director. Williams would cost about $1.2 million.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn already gave a green light last week to repair Williams, setting aside the funds in his proposed budget, which includes $6.5 million for aquatics projects.

Gesmundo, who lives near Cuscaden, used to watch kids walking to the pool. She says her neighborhood has many of the same needs as the area around Williams.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Budget cuts have closed, slashed hours, raised fees at Tampa city swimming pools 08/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 5:31am]

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