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New Port Richey considers closing pools to save money

NEW PORT RICHEY — City Manager John Schneiger has outlined a proposal to close the pools at the New Port Richey Recreation and Aquatics Center from Sept. 4 to May 24 as part of the cost-cutting efforts in a dire budget season.

The move, which would need the City Council's approval, would save about $93,503. The proposal would keep the lap pool open until Oct. 31 to allow swim teams to complete their seasons.

Closing the lap pool has been controversial, as several swimmers and swim teams have urged the council members to keep it open year round, but Schneiger said only a small number of people use the lap pool during winter months.

"Our numbers just don't come close to covering our costs," Schneiger told the council Tuesday evening.

His report outlined the cost savings of closing the pools for nearly nine months a year: Cutting the center's aquatics coordinator and swim coach positions would save more than $60,000, and reducing lifeguard hours would save another $20,000. The city could save about $8,500 by not heating the lap pool those months, according to the report.

Schneiger acknowledged there could be a downside, though: Membership losses could occur "in revenge" for closing the pools for much of the year.

The city has struggled to estimate those potential losses, though, as it's been difficult to determine how many people actually use the pools. The center collects membership fees up front for use of the entire facility, which also includes a fitness center, indoor basketball courts and a range of dance and exercise classes (often at extra charge).

"We haven't completely figured out what's going on there," Schneiger said.

That has been the problem from the beginning, according to Hal Blethroad, the parent of a child on New Port Richey's branch of the Tampa Bay Aquatics swim team, which trains daily at the center.

"We understand the city's financial situation and are willing to pay our fair share. We just have never been able to get a number of what it costs for us to use the lap pool," he said.

Several weeks ago, nearly the entire swim team faced the City Council and pleaded to keep the lap pool open all year. Since then, Schneiger said, he has met with Tampa Bay Aquatics parents to discuss the team's renting the pool during winter months.

The sides also discussed impending fee increases for teams using the lap pool. Currently, each member of Tampa Bay Aquatics pays $50 a month.

"We both agreed that was too low," Schneiger said.

Schneiger said Wednesday that more discussions will be held on the matter in two weeks. It's a crucial issue, as the city is subsidizing the facility to the tune of $2 million a year because of revenue shortfalls at the facility.

That is not uncommon for recreation facilities, Schneiger said, but the city is facing a financial crisis in all areas, which makes it more difficult to absorb the shortfalls at the center.

"Agencies commonly build these types of facilities — which are never intending to subsidize themselves — when things are good, with the intent of being able to fund the gaps," Schneiger said. "But the problem is, with the financial crisis we are in, we can't afford to do that."

The city is facing a $17 million budget shortfall over the next five years. The city is carrying a heavy debt load on several redevelopment properties purchased during the real estate boom. And New Port Richey's tax base has taken the heaviest hit among county property values, plunging another 11 percent this past year, property appraiser Mike Wells told the council Tuesday.

Wells stopped short of saying that New Port Richey's property values had hit bottom, but he did say they "can't go much lower."

The city took a big hit when Community Hospital pulled much of its enterprise out of the city and put it into the new Medical Center of Trinity. The old hospital site on Marine Parkway plummeted in value from $18 million to about $8 million, Wells said. He also said New Port Richey has experienced very little growth.

"You have no significant new growth," Wells told the council. "Most of your properties have age on them, and that's not good for tax rolls."

New Port Richey considers closing pools to save money 07/11/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 8:10pm]
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