NEW PORT RICHEY — Two county swimming pools threatened with closure got a reprieve Tuesday after county commissioners voted to dip into reserve funds to keep them open for at least another year.
The pool at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex, which has a $100,000 commitment from the private, nonprofit Land O'Lakes Lightning swim team to operate it, got unanimous support from commissioners.
The vote to keep open the pool at Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson proved more controversial, however. That pool lacks a private partner, so it would cost the county about $118,000 to operate it for a year. The 3-2 vote was split, with east side commissioners Ted Schrader and Pat Mulieri opposing the motion to keep it open, while west side commissioners Henry Wilson Jr. and Jack Mariano voiced strong support to save the pool. Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, whose district is on the west side, was the swing vote.
"How can you do that if you don't know where the money's coming from?" Mulieri chided her.
Schrader warned that the reserve fund, which increased to $1.79 million after Sheriff Chris Nocco and other constitutional officers returned unspent money, would likely be needed to shore up next year's inevitable shortfall.
"You may think this recession is over, but it's not," he said, noting that the state could force even more cuts on local governments before things improve. "Next year is going to be a lot worse."
Schrader said he didn't like closing a pool, but tough times require tough decisions.
"People are struggling out there just to meet their everyday needs," he said. "I don't want to see people suffer so that people can use something other people consider a luxury."
However, Wilson said reserve funds are for rainy days. And under the plan approved Tuesday, swimmers will pay more to use the pools.
The new schedule calls for daily child admission to go from $2 to $3 and adult admission to rise from $3 to $4. Rates for season passes would go from $50 to $60 per person and family passes would go from $100 to $120 for four people, with a fee of $30 for each additional person.
Commissioner Jack Mariano, who has been a strong opponent of park fees, called the availability of the Veterans pool "a quality-of-life issue" and said Hudson residents shouldn't be penalized because they are less affluent than those in Land O'Lakes. He said closing the pools, built with bond money that voters approved in the 1980s, would be a breach of trust with the residents who approved them.
Mulieri said it was important that private groups step up and noted how the Boys & Girls Clubs in Shady Hills are able to raise private money.
"They get out there," she said. "They don't come here crying and getting us to raise taxes," she said. Mulieri said she notices few cars when she drives by the Veterans pool. However, parks and recreation director Rick Buchman said statistics have shown roughly the same number of people use the Veterans and Land O'Lakes pools.
This is not the first time county pools have been on the chopping block. The county closed its pool in Grove Park, near Elfers, in 2009 and plans to fill it in for parking at the adjoining community center building. A year later, an agreement with a not-for-profit football league failed to keep open the county pool at the Hercules Aquatic Center in northern Zephyrhills.
Buchman said he was confident that the arrangement with the Lightning swim club at the Land O'Lakes pool would be successful, adding that the other group that operated the Zephyrhills pool was focused mainly on sports other than swimming.
"We've learned a lot since then," he said.