Keeping Oak Harbor swim club afloat comes at a cost

The North Whidbey Aquatics Club and associated swim team has become a point of contention between some North Whidbey Parks and Recreation District board members, program participants and community members.

An athlete swims down the lane during a recent North Whidbey Aquatics Club swim team practice.

An athlete swims down the lane during a recent North Whidbey Aquatics Club swim team practice.

For some, the North Whidbey Aquatics Club is a bottomless pool into which taxpayer money is being tossed year after year.

The club and associated swim team has become a point of contention between some North Whidbey Parks and Recreation District board members, program participants and community members.

Since its inception, the program has been partially subsidized by the North Whidbey Park and Recreation District, which is, in part, funded by a tax levy.

The club includes a competitive youth swim team for children and young adults ages six and older, as well as a masters team for adults.

SOME CRITICS in the community and on the North Whidbey Parks and Recreation District board of directors contend that the club’s subsidization is unusual compared to other areas’ swim teams, several of which are private. The use of taxpayer money to fund the program, they maintain, is irresponsible.

Others argue that subsidizing a community swim team is not only common, but necessary in order to sustain the program.

Ideally, each aquatics program should pull its own weight in terms of funding, according to interim aquatics director Erika Miller at John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool.

Those against the subsidization of the swim team argue that the program unfairly receives more taxpayer dollars than other programs due to its expenses outweighing its revenue. Those who are in favor of the swim team subsidization state that the team can and will pull its own weight financially given the appropriate planning and leadership.

THE DEBATE has crested in recent months, prompting members of the Park and Recreation District board of directors to establish a subcommittee with plans to closely review the club finances. This subcommittee is set to present its findings at a board meeting later this month.

Swim team participants and parents pay monthly dues, as well as their own fees for USA Swim registration. Other than free swim caps for new participants, swimmers also pay for their own equipment, according to Erika Miller.

Participant travel fees and meet entry fees are also paid by the swimmers and families, she said.

THE PARK district pays for coach Richard Taylor’s salary, which is $47,000 a year, according to the district budget. Taylor, hired in January, also received $2,000 from the district to cover his moving expenses. Medical insurance, 90 percent of which is paid for by the district, costs $4,985. Should Taylor enroll in the district retirement plan in the future, associated costs will be paid for by the district.

Taylor’s registration fee as a head coach in USA Swim costs the district $62 annually. Taylor’s travel expenses are also paid for by the district.

ATHLETES ON the masters team, which consists of an average of five to eight members ages 19 and older, pay $55 per month and $25 annually. The cost for children and youth is adjusted based on a sliding scale based upon skill levels. More advanced athletes spend more time training at the pool, and thus pay more in monthly dues.

“Wiggle Fish,” or beginners, pay $53. High School Prep and Silver level swimmers pay $61; Gold level swimmers pay $72; Junior level swimmers pay $95; and Platinum level swimmers pay $105.

Those dues apply to swimmers who live within the parks district boundaries. Those living outside the district pay slightly more. Families who qualify for financial assistance receive a reduced rate. Swimmers also pay a USA Swim registration, which costs $69 per person annually. There are between 35-40 swim team members on average as of late.

IN COMPARISON, another private swim team in the area, the South Snohomish County Dolphins, charges members standard monthly fees ranging from $50 to $225 per individual, based upon which group the participant swims with, according to the team website.

Eric Smith, coach of the nonprofit swim team South Snohomish County Dolphins, is a Whidbey native who once worked for the pool and swam for North Whidbey Aquatics Club.

As a private club, fundraising is a requirement of membership, Smith said. Events such as a swim-a-thon and hosting three meets per year help to finance the Dolphins team, he said.

NORTH WHIDBEY Aquatics Club previously hosted swim meets as well. Swim team parent Carolyn Pape said it’s something she’s hoping the team can do more of in the future.

The Dolphins currently have about 140 members. Still, Smith said, adequate fundraising can be difficult.

“It’s an expensive sport, kind of like golf,” he said.

The Snohomish Sting Rays, also a privately funded team, charges between $70 and $230 per month for each individual in addition to annual fees.

Each club offers discounts for families with multiple swimmers, and each charges annual fees for registration.

These private clubs also offer scholarships for families in need of financial assistance, as does the North Whidbey Aquatics Club.

MILLER SAID that the majority of swim teams she’s worked with were partially subsidized, and noted that all district programs receive some taxpayer funding. One of the main points cited by opponents of the team’s subsidization is that the club is unable to provide the majority of operational funds itself, thus creating a drain on district finances and requiring a greater allocation of tax dollars than other programs.

During 2012, the swim club’s total income was $70,130.30, but total expenses amounted to $106,237.72. During 2013, the club’s total income was $104,765.24 and the total expenses amounted to $112,192.23. During 2014, the district’s total income was $54,889.92, while the total expenses were $81,412.20.

TO TRIM costs for 2015, Miller said the swim club underwent several budget cuts earlier this year.

The assistant coach position was cut. That expense cost the district $9,881 in 2012 and $6,076 in 2014. In 2013 the position was unfilled.

Awards and incentives were also cut. Those cost the district $3,066 in 2012, $1,015 in 2013 and $936 in 2014.

Miller noted that Taylor has begun paying for certain things, like awards and incentives, from his own pocket.

Miller stressed that coach Taylor is dedicated to the team, and is a highly effective coach.

“The kids are swimming well, smiling and reacting positively,” said Miller.

THE BUDGET cuts aren’t quite sufficient for board member Donna Sue Holly, who said she is opposed to the team’s partial subsidization.

“I know right now it is absolutely costing the district money,” she said.

Holly is one of the board members sitting on the subcommittee.

“I don’t know how the door would stay open if we didn’t have the levy money, but we don’t need to be taking levy money to support a swim club that people pay less for than anywhere else in the country,” Holly said.

Participants in the North Whidbey Aquatics Club should pay more in dues in order to help sustain the team, she said.

“When I found out that I, a taxpayer, am paying for Little League swimming, I was appalled,” she said.

“I just don’t think that’s right.”

PAPE, A swim team parent, echoes Miller’s opinion of Taylor and added that she believes strong leadership will lead to an eventual increase in enrollment, thus increasing the revenue from registrations.

She is unsure, however, there are enough athletes currently on the team to sustain the program should it become fully privatized in the near future.

The difficulty of evaluating the swim team’s contribution to the district is compounded by a history of numerous leadership changes over the years.

Bill Walker, who was the director for about two years, replaced Craig Carlson in late 2013 and fired previous coach Neil Romney. Romney and his treasurer had refused to allow the director to examine financial records.

Budget discussions took place at that time, at which point Walker contended that the swim club was costing the district money.

There was previously a booster club in place, Holly and Miller said, but Romney did away with it.

WALKER, the aquatics director from mid-2012 to the end of 2013, said he recognizes the importance of a well-operated swim program. He acknowledges prior financial blunders of the department, but contends that the current board and Taylor are well-equipped to find an equitable solution.

“I know all the values of having a good swim team, and I believe, while I was director there, I supported the swim team to the greatest of my ability,” he said.

Walker said he left because four of the five commissioners at the time were either past or present swim team parents or members of the masters team. He said that resulted in many decisions based upon personal interests.

WALKER RECALLED advising the board to take a look at the budget, because the swim team was costing the district tens of thousands of dollars per year. He said that the heated debate over swim team funding was the main reason he left his job.

There is a way to make the program financially accountable while keeping it as a part of the district’s offerings, Walker said. “I have no problem with the district owning a swim team, and I think the present commissioners are on the right track to make that happen.”

One option that Miller, Walker, Pape and Holly agree could be beneficial is establishing a new booster club. It’s something Miller said may happen soon.

BOOSTERS ARE the main source of funding for the Thunderbird Aquatic Club swim team in Anacortes. The Oak Harbor aquatics department was modeled after that club, established nearly a decade earlier.

Marilyn Stadler, executive director, said the Anacortes team is about 20 percent of the Fidalgo aquatics department.

None of the department programs are subsidized by a tax levy, though levy funds are integral to maintaining the facility, she said.

“Municipal pools would never make it without levy funds,” Stadler said.

Before a switch in management, the Fidalgo club was a drain of about $25,000 to the district at the worst point, Stadler said.

Upon hiring its coach, Jason Hunter, she said the club improved financially and is now making some profit.

IN PART, the Thunderbirds swim club got its head above water by implementing a slight raise in fees and through fundraising.

Like football is subsidized, Stadler said she sees no reason why aquatics teams should not also receive similar support.

“It’s a great asset to have programs like this for kids to be involved with,” she said. “It helps them with discipline, it helps them have confidence in themselves.”

HOLLY AND others say that the majority of swim teams don’t make enough revenue in registration fees to sustain themselves without additional funding, whether from a booster club, tax levy or other source.

While she supports the existence of the swim team and doesn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Holly said she wants to see the team privatized and start paying lane-use fees just as the Oak Harbor High School swim team does.

Swim team athletes, along with coach Taylor, are determined to keep the team afloat, Miller said, adding that swim team participants are often the most vocal in communicating the value of the district and aquatics programs to the community when the time for a levy vote is near.

The value of the team is immeasurable for participants, as well as for the community, Pape said.

“They learn discipline, hard work and sacrifice.”

“It’s a lot more than swimming,” she said.

Holly and fellow commissioners have met weekly throughout the past month.

The subcommittee is slated to present its findings during the next public park board meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 17 at the pool.


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