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Park and rec is rife with potential conflicts

By BILL WALKER Whidbey News-Times Guest Columnist
January 7, 2014 · Updated 1:49 PM
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“I must recuse myself due to my personal interest in this decision.”

With these words, ethical public officials maintain the sworn integrity of their oaths to serve us impartially.

Ethical officials recuse themselves from participation in actions that will affect them personally or otherwise represent a conflict of interest.

Taxpayers of North Whidbey have experienced something far removed from this ideal. As reported in the Whidbey News-Times, I recently resigned as director of North Whidbey Park and Recreation District rather than continue to report to a Commission that serves its own members’ interests ahead of the interests of the district at large.

The NWPRD Board of Commissioners, tasked with setting policy for the Oak Harbor Pool and its programs, is made up of five elected members who serve without pay. Citizens should be grateful for their willingness to serve.

But, the current commission consists of four North Whidbey Aquatic Club (NWAC) team parents and one North Whidbey Masters swimmer.

Given that NWAC & Masters represent but one of 10 programs owned and managed by the district, serving just over 100 of its 39,000 citizens, the commission’s impartiality becomes increasingly suspect.

If those with a financial interest in team funding decisions were to recuse themselves, there would be nobody left to vote.

Consider these facts as well:

-Nine of those 10 NWPRD programs either contribute dollars toward the cost of running the pool, or are within a couple of thousand dollars of breaking even.

-The NWAC/Masters program, after coaches’ salaries and program expenses are subtracted from dues revenue, comes in at a deficit of over $40,000 per year, which is covered by you, the taxpayers.

-In a six-year levy cycle, that’s a quarter million dollars in subsidies to this small segment of our citizenry.

-NWAC and Masters have exclusive use of over 6,000 lane hours per year, fully 20 percent of the available pool time that you, the taxpayers, are paying for. Since the program already runs at a deficit before they get in the water, there is effectively no charge to the program members for any of these hours.

-In spite of this deficit, and in spite of the program’s free use of 20 percent of the available pool time, NWAC and Masters members are additionally allowed to use the pool during public lap swimming or family swim time, at no additional charge.

The commission would not consider eliminating this benefit.

-NWAC “returning seniors” are offered free workout time when they are home on breaks from college. In recent years, such swimmers have qualified for nationals, which is awesome. But, the taxpayers have covered airfare, lodging, meals and salary for their coach to attend the meets with them — while these swimmers were paying no dues to the district.

The commission has refused to end this unpaid benefit; one commissioner, in public session, referred to this as an entitlement they earned.

-For the past four budget cycles, including the 2014 budget recently approved, the commission has made no budget room for long term facility reserves — and no planning for repairs to a physical plant that is more than 30 years old — but has continued to use taxpayer money to subsidize competitive swim programs.

-NWAC allows families who qualify for free or reduced lunch to receive discounts on their dues. These scholarships provide a terrific competitive opportunity for kids who wouldn’t be able to afford it, but there is no system in place for the taxpayers to recoup these funds from another source.

-Unlike nearly every other swim club, NWAC/Masters has no booster club tasked with bridging the funding gap, no ongoing fundraising method of any kind in place, and no requirement for members to volunteer their time for the good of the district and its taxpayers who make the program possible.

Clearly, the NWPRD commissioners are happy to benefit their families by keeping their own team dues low, membership benefits high, and accountability nonexistent, with the burden falling on the taxpayer.

Citizens who willingly and enthusiastically voted to continue paying $0.17 per $1,000 to support the pool are shocked to find that NWAC and NW Masters are not private clubs that rent time at the pool, but in fact are, to a large extent, funded by those tax dollars.

During my tenure as director, I repeatedly emphasized the community benefit of a publicly funded team in terms of character development and good citizenship on the part of our young local swimmers. But I also — sometimes gently, sometimes not so much — encouraged the commission to acknowledge the taxpayers’ concerns and to move the team programs toward independence, which would free up precious dollars for more responsible uses.

If the commission voted to eliminate the NWAC and Masters programs, they would have more than $40,000 available every year to allocate to facility reserves, reduce class sizes in swim school, or add more aerobics time for our seniors.

That would be a rash move.

The right move is to push the district’s publicly funded competitive swim programs aggressively toward independence from taxpayer largesse. The follwoing changes are absolutely necessary:

-Immediately establish a booster club to raise funds for the district to help cover costs of the swim team.

-Use booster club funds to cover scholarships for those who can’t afford dues.

-Immediately eliminate free-swim privileges for NWAC and Masters swimmers.

-Revise the district’s bylaws to a) require commission candidates to disclose their personal interest in district-funded programs; b) allow no more than two sitting commissioners who are affected personally by policy changes to a specific program; and c) require commissioners to recuse themselves during any action financially affecting them.

Without a paradigm shift on the commission and in its budgeting priorities, our community pool will, at worst, bankrupt itself before the 2017 levy, or will, at best, lose the public’s trust and funding at that time.

Please don’t allow this to happen.

Support your community pool and all of its programs. Attend a commission meeting and let your voice be heard 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month at your Oak Harbor pool. Or, contact the NWPRD Board of Commissioners with your comments. They may be reached through the district’s web site at www.oakharborpool.com

 

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