TAMPA — A week ago, Mayor Bob Buckhorn refused to wade into controversy over a dry city swimming pool many see as a sign of disparity.
On Wednesday, he jumped in.
Following an ultimatum from a Tampa City Council member, and scathing criticism for City Hall from some people who live around the east Tampa pool, Buckhorn gave the green light to repair the Williams Park Pool.
"I'm almost speechless," said City Council member Frank Reddick, whose district includes the pool and who had threatened to vote against the entire city budget if Buckhorn didn't fix it. "I truly believe the mayor's doing the right thing."
Three years ago, the city closed three pools, including Williams Pool, because they did not meet a federal anti-drowning law requiring drain covers.
The city since reopened one of the pools, serving South Tampa, but the east Tampa pool is still dry and in even worse condition.
At last week's council meeting, where Buckhorn presented his first budget as mayor, a city director implied work on Williams Pool was a ways off — that there was no firm estimate of how much it would cost, and that the community around it would have to be involved in creating a master plan for the park that might not even include a pool.
When he learned that day of Reddick's threat to vote against the budget unless it included money for Williams Pool, Buckhorn would make no promises.
"I only need four votes" from the seven-member council to adopt the budget, he said then.
On Wednesday, though, Buckhorn said he intended to address Williams Pool all along.
"We had always said the money was in the budget," he said. "What we didn't know was what the amount was. So once we got the consultant's study back, we realized how much the amount was, and it was an amount that was doable, and so we made the decision, let's go. But the money had always been there."
A consultant assessed the cost of repairing Williams Pool at about $1.2 million. The capital budget includes $6.5 million through 2014 for aquatics, but several pools are vying for that.
Buckhorn said money for the work would come from community investment tax revenue.
He said he hoped work would start "as soon as we can put it out to bid."
Asked whether he would take back his remark about needing only four votes to pass the city budget, Buckhorn said no.
"Remember: I said I didn't know what the number was. When we got the numbers back we'd make a decision," Buckhorn said. "We wanted to get the pools up and running. That we had the money in the budget. That once we got that number back it was a question of okay, is it a go or no go? It was a manageable number, so it's a go."
The consultant's report revealed that after years of being drained and refilled, Williams Pool had shifted 1 1/2 inches to one side. It was this shift that caused its filtration system to fail, and led to its closing in 2009.
"We will do our best to move it along now that we know what the issues are," said city chief of staff Santiago Corrada, who would not give a time frame for when the pool would open.
When the Interbay Pool reopened this summer, neighbors of the east Tampa pool wanted to know why Williams was still closed. Some appearing before the City Council saw it as discrimination.
Corrada said it was not an issue of inequality. The city operates nine pools in the summer, five of which serve primarily African-American communities.
But Reddick said three years was too long to take to assess a pool. He said his constituents were irate and lining up behind him to demand action.
But upon hearing the mayor wanted to move ahead, Reddick said kids in his neighborhood will be glad to hear the news. And he said he can't wait to be there on opening day.
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3431.