For the second time in February, two members of the Vashon Park District board were absent from a meeting, leading those who were present to avoid making a motion on the issue of whether to cover the Vashon Pool. With three board members behind the table, and roughly 50 community members in attendance, the Feb. 28 meeting instead turned into a forum for public comment on the issue.
Nearly a dozen of those in attendance, most of whom are swimmers, spoke out about the proposal which was initially brought to Vashon Park District (VPD) by the Vashon Seals Swim Team — one of the island’s competitive swimming team for children and teens — late last year. An updated proposal that included work with VPD Aquatic Director Scott Bonney was presented to the VPD board Feb. 14.
The Seals have put forth a plan to cover the outdoor pool at Vashon High School during the off-season (October through May) with a temporary, inflatable dome in an effort to provide a pool the team can train in year-round, as well as a place for community members to take lessons and swim laps. Currently, in the summer months, the Seals practice at the Vashon Pool — which is deeper and equipped with starting blocks — and in the off-season at the private Vashon Athletic Club (VAC) pool — which is shallow, has no starting blocks and is shorter than the Vashon Pool. The agreement between the Seals and VAC has been in place since 1999.
Sadie Choo, 11, is a Seals competitive swimmer and the daughter of Seals Board President Karin Choo. At the Feb. 28 meeting, she said that the VAC pool’s lack of starting blocks and shorter lanes causes issues.
“We appreciate the VAC, but many young swimmers are scared at meets as they have never jumped off starting blocks before,” she said. “The competition pools are also much further and sometimes we can’t find the wall in the backstroke.”
As part of the cover proposal, the Seals have committed to fundraise the initial $85,300 for purchase and installation of the dome. The team will also pay for 10 hours per week of practice time. However, the plan also includes another 22 hours per week of community-use time that would require funding from VPD to cover lifeguards and operation costs — around $54,800 per year of the organization’s $1.2 million budget. VPD Board Chair Karen Gardner has said that while she believes the idea is a fine one, the expense is one she does not think the district can afford, but no decisions have been made.
“Our primary issue is, ‘Can we afford this?”’ she said last Tuesday.
VPD’s 2017 budget listed the Vashon Pool’s operating budget at $79,180 with a $28,391 capital budget.
“The key thing in all this is where does the money come from,” VPD board member Bob McMahon said at the Feb. 28 meeting.
Reached Monday, Karin Choo said that the Seals cannot start officially fundraising for the cover without VPD approval; however, the team has secured $33,000 in pledges.
“The time is now to do this project,” she said. “The VAC is fully used. We’ve been asking for more hours for years, but there’s no way for them to accommodate that.”
The majority of the commenters at last Tuesday’s meeting were in favor of the proposal, but others raised questions about potential competition with the VAC, which operates the island’s only indoor pool. VAC owner Nick Maier said the club’s pool serves more than 500 people every week, including those who do not have memberships, seniors and children. The VAC offers swim lessons, exercise classes for seniors and lap swims.
“We make these (aquatic) programs accessible to everyone, whether they have a VAC membership or not. For example, we offer scholarships and work with low-income families to guarantee anyone can participate,” he said in a letter sent to the VPD board and The Beachcomber.
He said covering the Vashon Pool would cause an unnecessary duplication of services, which would not be a sensible use of taxpayer money.
“Operating the public pool on a year-round basis and paying those increased costs will require VPD to use taxpayer … money and add revenue generating programs that mirror and directly compete with the same aquatic programs that the VAC already provides to the community,” he explained in the letter. “VPD may also be required to defund current community programs to pay for this project.”
But many at the Feb. 28 meeting disagreed, saying that the two pools could work in concert with one another.
Connie Cunningham, an island lap swimmer who attended the meeting, said she swims at the VAC pool, and it is overcrowded.
“More times than not, I can’t get the space to swim,” she said. “There is a much larger lap swimming population than what is seen at the pools.”
Islander Bruce Jackson agreed and said that he grew up in Tacoma and saw multiple pools being used in conjunction with one another.
“That’s the strength of the program,” he said. “There need to be discussions about how to best use the VAC pool.”
VPD Board Chair Gardner said that she wants to ensure the covering of the pool is not a “zero-sum agreement,” in that no entity, specifically the VAC, is left struggling.
Board member Doug Ostrum said the VAC pool is not suitable for swim competitions, but is suitable for just about everything else.
“There are a group of people who will use the VAC pool,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bill Rowe, an islander who said he has been operating and maintaining pools, including the athletic club’s and multiple private pools for 14 years, said, as a taxpayer, he is “concerned.”
“I’m here as a concerned taxpayer. I became concerned because the tax dollars (are) being spent on something that I highly disagree with for financial reasons,” he said before rattling off a long list of concerns and expenses that come with a covered pool. “I ask you to not approve the presented plan. A plastic dome is not feasible, nor economically, nor socially acceptable in the Pacific Northwest, especially for recreation.”
He said that while the pool will provide 23 hours per week of community use, those hours will be at times when children are in school. The community-use hours listed in the proposal are noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
“So, what hours will the community be able to use this pool?” he asked. “We’re looking at possibly three hours per day in the evening. The public use will be limited. The pool’s largest user is a private interest group.”
He then said year-round use of a public pool in this region is “a monumental task” due to maintenance for safety and health, including electricity costs to keep the dome inflated and ventilated, and that the project will tap into VPD resources better used elsewhere. He estimated monthly costs to the park district at $10,000. The proposal estimates these costs around $9,677 per month — $116,120 annually. However, the plan includes VPD revenue in the form of the Seals’ costs for practice time and memberships for the community. With those fees accounted for, VPD’s contribution is $4,566 per month —less than $55,000 per year.
Rowe also brought up the pool’s locker rooms, which are not heated or insulated and would be cold in the winter months. However, Seals Board President Choo said the Seals will also pay for locker room upgrades that will happen when work is done on the pool this September.
VPD Aquatics Director Bonney said that Rowe’s concerns are addressed in the proposal. He said he even visited a pool in Mercer Island with a similar bubble and “talked extensively” about maintaining air and water quality.
“All of this has been looked at,” he said.
The board meets again at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 14. A motion could be made on the subject, followed by a vote at a later meeting. If approved, the decision would bring to an end decades of efforts to cover the public pool.