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Foster backs away from closing pools as the City Council objects

ST. PETERSBURG — A plan that Mayor Bill Foster unveiled last week to close four of nine city pools already looks dead for lack of support.

The City Council needs to sign off on the plan, which includes turning four of the five remaining public pools into pay-to-play water parks. But on Tuesday, a majority of council members said they don't support closing any pools or charging higher fees.

"I'm not in favor of closing pools," said council Chairwoman Leslie Curran. "(The water parks) are a ridiculous idea, and you have to give it more thought before you start closing pools."

Last week, Foster said the closures would narrow a $12 million gap in next year's budget. With attendance flagging at some pools, Foster said he needed to cut services that were getting the least use. The plan included closing four of the pools and filling them in so they could be used as recreation centers or parks. Four of the salvaged pools would be transformed into water parks with features that would draw crowds willing to pay up to $8 for two hours at a time.

On Tuesday, however, Foster said he meant to say he would consider closing two pools next year, and a total of four pools "somewhere down the road" as long as he had council support.

Foster acknowledged he got negative feedback about the idea over the weekend, but said that wasn't the reason he was now saying he intended to close only two.

There has been a growing backlash against the idea, said Will Michaels, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. Known as CONA, it plans to have a meeting tonight where the proposed closures will be discussed.

"There is a lot of concern about it," Michaels said. "To close the pools and make them less accessible and to charge more, that's really hurting those families who are the most in need in the community at a time of a great recession."

During Tuesday's meeting with council members, Foster barely mentioned the pool idea. When it did come up, he referred the idea to a future, unscheduled workshop.

Foster said Tuesday's meeting was meant to discuss the city's budget for projects over the next five years, and wasn't the venue to discuss a specific proposal. But some council members said Foster should have taken the time to better explain the idea, which he had already discussed individually with each council member last month.

"The mayor wants to close city pools, not the council," said Wengay Newton. "It's his idea, not ours. He needs to clarify that. I was surprised that at today's meeting, he didn't explain what his idea is."

Like Curran, Newton said he doesn't support closing any pools. Neither do Steve Kornell, Bill Dudley or Herb Polson — at least for now. They all objected to the water park in lieu of pools.

Karl Nurse said he understood the logic of closing pools, but not the logic of spending money to build water parks.

"When money is tight, you can't afford to make a mistake," Nurse said. "Imagine if we built these parks and they didn't draw huge crowds. Then what?"

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8037.

Foster backs away from closing pools as the City Council objects 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 9:34pm]
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