Will a tax vote Sink the Pool?

"Some taxpayers say they are tired of paying for Oak Harbor's public pool. But if they stop, pool operators say they may not be able to keep it open."

  • Friday, October 29, 1999 6:00am
  • News

“Like a diver poised on the end of the board, Oak Harbor’s John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool is facing a moment of truth.Tuesday, voters will decide whether they think the public pool is an asset worth paying more property tax for — about $7 a year more on a $130,000 house — or an unnecessary drain on taxpayer dollars.Pool officials say it will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep the pool open without the levy. Some taxpayers say they’ve already paid to build the pool and now think only pool users should pay to keep it running.When Resolution 99-65, the new pool maintenance and operation levy, first went to voters in the primary election in September, it went down to defeat — not from lack of a favorable vote, but from lack of a 60 percent “super majority” needed for passage. Only a little more than 3,800 voters cast a ballot in the primary election. That’s about the same number of people who use the pool each month and only a small portion of the more than 14,000 registered voters in the district.But one defeat was not enough to drown the pool.Because of a vote of the park district commissioners the same levy request will pop up again on the November ballot. It asks taxpayers to keep an existing operating levy going for another six years and to increase the amount the district takes by about $83,000 per year until 2002. That amounts to about $7 more per year to a $130,000 homeowner.In addition to operating the Vanderzicht pool, the district also maintains two ball fields at Clover Valley Park. It receives nearly all its funding through property taxes, donations and user fees.Since the resolution’s defeat in September, pool supporters have tried to build momentum. Save the Pool signs and buttons started appearing in yards and on jackets and pool users have been reminded that their vote counts.Prior to the primary vote, pool director Lee Mosher said she didn’t think the pool could keep operating after the first of the year if the levy failed. Now, in the light of the primary defeat, she’s tempering her statement.“My bosses have asked me to come up with an alternate budget,” she said this week. “Some of the things we’re looking at are reducing hours, raising fees and how I’m going to keep our equipment going.”One of the main reasons the district is asking for more money is to update the building’s air-handling and lighting systems to make them more energy-efficient. Currently the facility racks up about $44,000 in electricity bills alone each year. Mosher said there’s also a need to replace a currently-broken hot tub, retile the showers, add a wheelchair lift and eventually replace the boiler that heats the pool.The pool operates most days from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. and offers a variety of programs from senior water aerobics and pre-school swimming lessons to kayaking classes and the Oak Harbor High School swim team.HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? Even so, a lot of people don’t use the pool at all, but they’ve still had to pay for it. The original building and operating levies already in place has cost the owner of a $130,000 home about $35 each year, or a total of about $630 by the time the pool is paid off in 2001. Some say that’s enough. They say they want to see pool users start picking up the tab.“I’m more in favor of users paying for the day-to-day operations of the pool and property owners paying for upkeep,” said Fred Smyth of Oak Harbor. Smyth said that levy requests only tell half the story. He said a few dollars per $1,000 of property value can seem like very little until the county raises the assessment value of your land.“Property assessments just came out and one of our pieces of property went up by 41 percent,” said Smyth. “The assessed value in this county has gone up significantly.” As a result, he said, operations like the pool can end up with more money they they really need.“I’d like to see, with all these levies, a total dollar amount to be paid by the taxpayers rather than a factor of the assessment value,” Smyth said.Having users pick up more of the cost is an option, Mosher said, and it will be a necessity if the pool hopes to stay open after a levy failure. Currently adults pay $2.75 per visit, seniors and kids under 18 pay $2.50 and kids 3 years old and younger are free. The problem, she said, is that as rates go up, attendance tends to drop off. That causes further rate increases, which leads to a further decline in patrons and eventually what you’re left with is a private club for people who can afford it.“Twelve dollars per lane per hour is what it costs to open the doors here. That’s not counting the repairs I need to make,” Mosher said. “We need public funds to run this facility. We’re just like the library and the parks.”Smyth, however, said that before he invests more money in the pool he wants to see a better accounting for how the park and recreation district is spending it. For one thing, he said the pool’s payroll for staff has gone up much faster than revenue.“Sometimes staff outnumber the swimmers.” he said. “There’s not good scheduling going on at the pool.”Mosher said staffing at the pool varies slightly with the season from about 33 to 40 people, but there has been no actual increase in staff since 1994 when she took the director’s job. Only two of the paid positions are full-time. As director, Mosher’s salary is about $28,000 per year and she says she has not given herself a raise in two years.Mosher said that one positive thing to come out of all the pool hoopla is that more people are dropping in to take a look at the facility and ask questions.“People are showing an interest. I’m enjoying the community awareness,” she said. “If you don’t like the way the pool is run then come in and tell me. It is a community pool.””

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