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PAXTON — The Paxton Park District’s public swimming pool will be open this summer.
Over 20 people showed up at the Civic Center for the Paxton Park District Board of Directors’ monthly meeting on Tuesday as the board prepared to vote on options discussed for the 2017 swimming season.
One of the eight options discussed was to close the park district’s public swimming pool.
“We’ve been debating it since the beginning of the year and been putting it off for a couple of months,” Park Board President Brad Strebeck said at the meeting.
Instead, the park board voted 4-3 on the option to install a new pool liner, repair troubled concrete spots and install a new ground water pump.
The park board also voted 5-2 to accept a bid for the construction of its new pool liner from Renosys Corporation in Indianapolis at a price of $47,735.
Weather and project progress pending, Paxton Park District Recreation Director Neal McKenry said he is looking at Memorial Day as the potential date for the opening of the pool for the summer.
“No guarantees have been made, however, as we could face the likelihood of pushing back the opening a week or two,” McKenry said. “Once we get a better idea of when we would open, we’ll start selling pool passes and promoting the various programs available at the pool.”
The cost of new ground water pump was estimated last year at “somewhere between $3,000 to $4,000,” McKenry said.
“Concrete repair will be priced out shortly. “The cost involved with that, and with the liner, was never really the issue at hand. We have the money to do that necessary work. What was up for discussion was whether or not to spend that amount of money to keep the pool open and continue to lose money through day-to-day pool operations.”
Among the attendees at Tuesday’s meeting was Melinda Garrelts, who moved to Paxton two years ago.
“When we bought our house, one of the selling points was that the pool was down the street from our house,” Garrelts said.
One of Garrelts’ children, Emily swam for the Paxton Aquatic Wildcats swim team, which uses the pool for its home meets, last summer.
“There was a famous swimmer who says, ‘No one dies from not being able to play basketball, but they do if they don’t know how to swim.’ Swimming is a great exercise. It brings the community together,” Garrelts said. “It’s a skill you keep your whole life.”
Daiton Piatt, a swimmer on the Wildcats’ swim team, tried to speak at the meeting, but was instead moved to tears.
“She’s been swimming since she was 5 years old, and the summer when the pool closed down crushed her,” said Jamie Piatt, Daiton’s mother.
Dave Eckerty, a former park board member who served from 1985-97, attended the meeting as well hoping the park board could save the pool.
“One of the main things that was told to me when I first got on the board was that the whole purpose of the Paxton Park District — the only reason the park district ever existed — was because the community wanted to build a swimming pool. That’s why there is a park district,” Eckerty said. I think that you guys as board members have got to do everything that you possibly can to keep that pool open.”
“We’ve always had a pool. I pay my taxes. Not all of it goes here, but you guys are there for our children. You all have kids. You’ve got to think of the kids,” added Sue Morris, a 23-year Paxton resident. “I understand that you’re going to be in the red. We’re in the red, but you’re still sitting here. The park district is here. I have six grandkids on the swim team. (Swim team coach Alex) Goudy is awesome. I was there with the swim team with my kids.”
The sentiments about wanting to keep the pool was shared with members of the park board.
“I have been completely conflicted,” said Nicci Greenlee, a park board member. “My child and I use it every year a lot over the summer, but at the same time, we have to make a decision for everyone. We can’t make the decision we personally want.”
“I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, and I see both sides of it,” park board member Boddy Kinnaird added.
“Everybody up here has kids that use the pool,” Park Board Vice President Steve Sample added. “It’s a tough conversation. Regardless of what we vote on tonight, I don’t think that would be the end of the story. Even if we do replace the liner, there’s a lot of support for doing things moving forward in a different way. It’s a learning experience for all of us here. My son is here all the time and has been for three years, and when I went home from the last couple of meetings and talked with my wife about the situation, he doesn’t like it.”
The pool was closed during the summer of 2011 due to a lack of compliance with safety regulations applying pools’ main drains.
“I’m sure most of everybody who’s been in that area remembers that,” Sample said. “We were very nervous when we had to close it for the pump issue. That was a state-mandated issue. We were nervous about the pool and whether it would start back up.”
“I would say as is, it would not open again because if you let that sit unused for that long a time, it’s not good,” McKenry added.
After the pool was closed for the summer of 2011, the Save Our Pool Committee was formed and raised $67,731 to help cover costs needed to renovate the pool’s main drain and re-open the facility in 2012.
“The community always pulled together. That $60,000 came out of the community’s pocket because they were going to close the pool down, and voila, there’s the money. There’s always been a problem (with the pool) for 23 years,” Morris said.
“You’ve got to do something and not close that pool because that’s what people look for. They’re not moving to Rantoul. She didn’t move to Rantoul. She moved here. Why? Because the pool was down the street. That pool has got to be there becuase what are these kids going to hang onto? They don’t have anything now. Nothing, and it’s a sad situation.”
Morris was one of a few attendees who suggested another committee be formed to raise funds for the pool.
“I’ll help. Let’s get the money from the community,” Morris said. “If you guys keep saying you don’t have it, let’s get something done. Why can’t we just have a committee on that?”
“You have to involve the community,” Denver Piatt added. “There are people who want to get involved.”
Among the other options considered was to create a referendum to construct a new aquatic facility.
“Why hasn’t something been done like the school district did for the schools? What’s been done since the pool was closed for a year? We’ve got to do something about the pool. Let’s put up a referendum. The town has to invest in itself, just like with the schools,” Denver Piatt said. “You look all around, all the communities that are successful are the ones that are investing in itself, whether it be schools or pools.”
In total, the pool lost an average of $25,037 annually over the last four years.
Over that four-year span, the pool resulted in an average annual loss of $19,168 when subtracting a $24,410 annual staff expense and a $15,430 chemicals and utilities cost from $20,672 in annual admissions and concessions revenue.
“We haven’t done anything for 10 years,” said Denver Piatt, another attendee at Tuesday’s meeting. “There’s nothing in this town. You have sports, but what time do the Little League games start? For the rest of the day, a lot of kids have nothing. They don’t have a parent at home. They don’t have a pool in their backyard. I guarantee we have certain kids who are active every day, so if you take (the pool) away, what’s left?”
The pool was rarely, if ever, profitable over the years, Eckerty said.
“We never made money from the pool,” Eckerty said. “The pool always lost money, no matter how good a season we had. We had good directors at the time doing everything they could, doing the same things that Neal (McKenry’s) doing — trying to trim the costs, doing everything they can to make it profitable. There were times where you’d get really close, but then you got a leak. The motor’s going down, or the pump is going down. There’s always something that’s going to be associated with the pool.
“That’s an asset that we have as a town. It brought businesses in. I know you’re talking about at what point is it going to bleed you dry, but I think that you’ve got to get proactive. I don’t have the answers for you guys, but I would hope that you would do everything that you can to keep the pool open.”
From 2013-15, the pool’s average annual loss was $25,735. Prior to the 2016 pool season, the park district did the following in order to cut costs:
— Closed on Sundays, the pool’s least busy day, with the exception of pool parties.
— Closed for the season at the beginning of the school rather than waiting until Labor Day.
— Did not give the pool staff annual raises.
— Did not hire specialized concession staff, but instead incorporated lifeguard rotation into the concession stand.
— Closely monitored overstaffing and sent staff home when warranted.
— Raised swim team registration fee slightly.
— Began business-sponsored “Free Family Swim Nights.”
“We’ve really cut back on certain things to try to keep the expenses down, and we still came out in the negative,” Strebeck said.
Staff expenses decreased from $25,932 in 2013-15 to $19,842, while admissions and concessions revenue increased from $20,053 to $22,530. However, chemicals and utilities expense increased from $13,729 to $20,534, resulting in a total loss of $22,940 for 2016.
In 2016, the park district’s recreation fund, which includes all park district activities with the exception of youth league baseball and softball and the pool, brought in about $36,000. Two-thirds of that fund was granted to the pool so it could break even with expenses.
“I’ve tried everything in my power last year to save as much money as I could,” added Jennifer Snelling, who was hired as the swimming pool manager for the 2015 pool season, at the meeting. “There were times when I was the only person there to watch a pool with five people. We’ve had the pool open late. We’ve closed it early. We’ve done this. We’ve done that. People won’t come. I’ve been there from day to night before, and there have been two kids there.”
The park district issued $100,000 in general obligation bonds to pursue capital-improvement projects for the 2017 fiscal year, which started on Feb. 1, with the purchase of a new pool liner among its top priorities.
“It’s not really about the money at this point. I believe we bonded enough money to where if we decided to fix the pool, then we’ll fix it. The decision that we need to make is (whether) it’s in the best interests of the community and all of the taxpayers for us to use their money to repair and continue to lose $20,000-25,000 per year,” Sample said.
"It’s not so much a repair issue at this point. We’ve been slapping band-aids on this trying to make it continue to go for quite some time now, so it’s not so much the repairs. The issue is does it make sense to fix it and continue to lose the amount of money that it’s losing?”
A budget of $20,000 was planned to be used toward the pool from this year’s recreation fund.
“In the last 5-10 years, we feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to add value in other places, and we’re literally taking any money that we make from all those other projects or other activities, and it’s going into the running of a pool for 2 1/2 months through the summer,” Sample said.
“It’s a really unfortunate situation that we’re in. It’s not necessarily about do we have the money to spend for the repairs. It’s about if it makes sense for the community as a whole for us to spend taxpayer money to do that.
“The cost to repair is not really the issue. How much of a loss is OK to take? Is it really benefitting all of our taxpayers to continue to lose that amount of money. That’s the issue. “We wanted for years to be able to expand our baseball program. (Nelson Field) not the city’s field. That’s our field. We just don’t have the funds to (expand).
“There’s growth opportunities in other areas, but we can’t even start to consider them because of other things that are going on. We were losing money on the pool, but how long can we keep expecting everything else to support that pool? The operating expenses for the pool, and the money we have to pay for those expenses is essentially fixed.”
McKenry said “plans going forward are business as usual this year” for the pool.
“Myself and the board heard everyone state that the pool could use some upgrades,” McKenry said. “I 100 percent agree with that. Upgrades and extra features — that will not happen this year. What people feel they need from the pool in the future is definitely something we agree with. However, what we need from people this year is full support and great attendance at the pool, as it sits currently.”
Other options considered for the pool by the park board were to add a slide and/or play structure and to replace the baby pool with a splashpad, but McKenry said the park board wold need to see more attendance at the pool before spending the money.
“We cannot operate under the if you build it, they will come mentality,” McKenry said. “There are no guarantees that adding a slide here or a splashpad there will bring as many people out to cover those extra costs. People’s backyard pools are still going to be there, there will still be a great aquatic facility 10 miles south of here, there will still be TV, video games, and air conditioning at home, and there will still be an increase in youth sport travel leagues throughout the summer. There will still be all of those reasons not to attend the pool.”
When the vote to keep the pool for the 2017 season occurred, Greenlee, Kinnaird, Amber King and Kaye Harper voted yes while Strebeck, Sample and Brad Ecker voted no.
“Everyone saw how close the pool came to closing at the board meeting. One single vote,” McKenry said. “Hopefully, that’s a wakeup call and gives the community a reason to attend. What we need this year is support and for people to stop taking their community pool for granted. Our pool cannot survive if a majority of people have the mindset of it will always be there. Unfortunately, it cannot just sit there as simply a convenience for people.
“People volunteering to organize committees for fundraisers is very much appreciated. We look forward to working together and get the ball rolling, but what we really need is increased attendance. When and if that happens, in my eyes, that will more than justify spending a good chuck of money on some upgrades, but if average attendance is 61 people or if 40 percent of the days we were open had less than 50 people, both of which were the case last year, I question whether or not that would be worthwhile.”
According to McKenry, 223 pool passes were sold among 89 families last year, and more is needed to keep the pool afloat.
Instead of if you build it they will come, what would be more truthful would be if you come, we will build it,” McKenry said. “Please don’t misinterpret that as an ultimatum. But please look at the facts and see how little the pool has been used and how much it costs to operate. We get it, though -- the allure of the pool isn’t there anymore. Maybe it’s not the cool thing to do like is was back in 1989 or whenever.
“Back then, when the pool probably had at least four times as many people attending on a daily basis, it still lost money. We’re not expecting or even trying to make the pool profitable. Losing $10,000 would be fantastic. Losing $25,000 again and again is a nightmare.”
In other Paxton Park District news
— The board approved a bid from Farnsworth Group via 7-0 vote to engineer a parking lot project at the Civic Center for a price not to exceed $19,490. Park Board Attorney Ross Sorensen said “Farnsworth will begin working with (McKenry) and the board to come up with a design to resurface the parking lot and try to resolve any drainage issues.”
— The board approved an intergovernmental agreement with the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district to allow the park district to use PBL’s facilities for athletic activities for a rental cost of $6,500.
— Tuesday, March 14, marked Strebeck’s last park board meeting. “I really have enjoyed seeing the park district grow,” Strebeck said to the rest of the board. “Keep going in this direction, guys. I appreciate the time I put in. I just think it’s time to move on.”
— The park board approved purchases for the Paxton Park District Youth League baseball and softball leagues totaling $2,700. Major purchases will include new batting cage nets and a pitching machine, McKenry said.
— The Paxton Park District will host a daddy-daughter dance sometime in late April. Exact details will be determined and released within the week, McKenry said. Details regarding a yoga program at the Civic Center will also be announced, and the park district is also working towards providing a daily play camp over the summer as well.