NEW PORT RICHEY — By the end of budget season, the controversy over pool operations at the New Port Richey Recreation & Aquatic Center seemed to be worked out.
Weeks of pleading by the Tampa Bay Aquatics New Port Richey club swim team and residents prompted the City Council to scrap plans to close the lap pool for the winter. And the council agreed to reinstate the job of Tampa Bay Aquatics swim coach Casey Claflin, whose $30,000 city-funded position had been among the dozen jobs on the chopping block.
Since then, city parks and recreation director Elaine Smith has fired Claflin. And on Tuesday evening, the City Council voted 3-1 to change the fees for swim teams renting pool time.
In recent months, swim teams had paid a flat rate of $200 a month for use of the lap pool. Starting Jan. 1, the city will charge teams $12 an hour for pool use, then incrementally increase the hourly rate to $36 over the next two years, Smith said.
The rate changes were among the recommendations made more than a year ago by Colorado marketing firm Ballard*King. The city commissioned that $15,000 study to seek input on improving the marketing for the recreation center, which has been losing money since it opened in 2007. Debt service this year is projected to be about $1.4 million.
Tampa Bay Aquatics parents urged the council on Tuesday evening not to adopt the new fees, saying they needed more time to nurture their brand before they could afford them. Several parents said the new rates will threaten the team's financial livelihood.
"What you have here is a gem," said parent Jason Blair. "You guys have the opportunity to grow this team. Give the parents a chance to grow."
Council member Bill Phillips voted against the rate changes, saying Tampa Bay Aquatics should be given more time to market its team.
"We create a negative out of the gate," he said.
Phillips also expressed displeasure with the Ballard*King study, which was presented prior to his joining the council.
"I really don't feel like it had any community involvement or input to it," he told the Times.
Smith said she offered swim teams use of the pool for $200 a month to give them a chance to brace for the changes. Prior to that, Tampa Bay Aquatics had paid $50 a month per swimmer, which amounted to $950 a month. The new rate structure will mean initial savings from that, costing Tampa Bay Aquatics about $624 a month during the first year. But the cost would go up considerably in subsequent years.
This comes as Tampa Bay Aquatics is also taking on the cost of paying Claflin's coaching fees, too. Smith fired Claflin after he failed to attend a predisciplinary hearing following his refusal of an assignment to lock gates at various city parks, according to city documents. Smith said she offered Tampa Bay Aquatics the services of another recreation center employee who is also certified as a swim coach, but the team refused. Numerous parents have said Claflin's talent as a coach is what their kids want.
Claflin, who also coaches the Gulf High School swim team, has since continued coaching Tampa Bay Aquatics at the recreation center, but said he has not decided whether to discuss his firing publicly.
"I'm about coaching these kids," Claflin told the Times on Wednesday.