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County, private groups must find way to keep swimming pools open

Call it a half gainer. A Pasco commission majority Tuesday tossed a lifesaver to swimming enthusiasts in central Pasco while sending out an SOS for private sector help to keep aquatics afloat at a county pool in Hudson. Unfortunately, nobody dove in to provide a definitive answer, preferring instead to wait for a budget workshop next week.

But at least the commission did not dismiss a tentative working arrangement with the Land O'Lakes Lightning, a competitive swimming club serving 140 children that seeks to keep open the county pool at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex. The proposed county budget, effective Oct. 1, calls for closing pools there and at the Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson to save roughly $290,000.

Tuesday, the commission heard a plan for the Lightning to run the Land O'Lakes pool with a public subsidy of $49,000. There is no specific proposal to do likewise in Hudson and the county would need to spend $146,000 (minus $20,000 paid in user fees) to keep that pool open in 2012.

Pulling the plug in Hudson would be a mistake, even without a private club to operate it. The households in the area nearest the pool — the 34669 zip code — are primarily families with median income levels roughly 23 percent lower than the rest of the state. It is a demographic that does not have neighborhood association amenities that would offset the loss of a public pool and commissioners are mistaken if they believe otherwise. Less than a quarter of the 140,000 single-family homes in the county have their own swimming pools, according to the property appraiser's office.

Draining the pools in Land O'Lakes and Hudson would leave county residents with only three publicly accessible swimming pools — one in the city of New Port Richey and at YMCA branches in Trinity and Zephyrhills. It also would leave five high school swimming and diving teams scrambling to find a place to practice and hold meets after the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

As proposed, the new budget marks the third consecutive year the county has made high-profile cuts in its parks and recreation department. 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.

In learning from that failure, the county now proposes to give the Lightning a one-time $7,500 appropriation to cover start-up costs, something that wasn't done in Zephyrhills. There also is renewed confidence on the county level that a highly motivated competitive swimming club will be more successful than a football program at operating a pool.

But there is no such civic group able to step forward in Hudson. Until one is assembled, commissioners must keep the county pool there open as a community asset for a blue-collar area that certainly deserves one.

County, private groups must find way to keep swimming pools open 08/09/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 9, 2011 5:16pm]
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