Pool advocates float new deal

Reworked Mendenhall Valley facility would cost $19.8 million

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2007

Two years after a $28.5 million plan to build a pool in Mendenhall Valley failed in a vote of the people, proponents of a new pool are back with what they say is a better plan that will cost half as much.

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Advocates, such as Glacier Swim Club head coach Scott Griffith, say the downtown pool is at full capacity, kids are sometimes packed 15 to a lane during the club's practice, and the club might have to start turning kids away.

Pool costs

Mendenhall Valley pool

Current proposal: $19.8 million.

State reimbursement: $5.2 million.

Total costs to taxpayers: $14.5 million.

2005 proposed pool cost: $28.5 million.

Yearly net operating costs: Zero to $400,000, depending on revenues.

Augustus Brown pool

2006 yearly operating costs: $837,000.

2006 revenues: $327,000.

Net operating cost: $510,000.

2006 visitors, not including spectators: 102,000.

Source: Juneau Parks and Recreation, city voters' guide

For more about the Oct. 2nd municipal election, go to the Juneau Empire's online Voters' Guide 2007 at juneauempire.com/elections.

• Interactive features this year:

• Candidate profiles.

• Candidate video clips.

• A chance to comment of candidates' stands.

• A chance to answer candidates' questions to the community.

But at least one opponent, Juneau Assembly member Sara Chambers, says Juneau's homeowners can't afford another property tax hike.

Proposition 4 proposes a $19.8 million facility with two pools: a six-lane, 25-yard lap pool and a warm-water pool for swimming lessons, senior aerobics and training programs. If approved in the Oct. 2 city election, the aquatic center could open by early 2010. The facility is about one third smaller than the 2005 pool proposal.

The pool qualifies for $5.2 million in state money, or 26 percent of the cost, because the swim lessons that are a part of the proposal are considered an educational purpose.

About $14.5 million in bonds will be paid for by raising property taxes $34 per $100,000 of assessed value for 15 years. That works out to an average family property tax hike of $80 to $100 per year, according to proponents.

In 2005, pool opponents complained that plan was too expensive and the facility too extravagant. Pool backers say they worked with former opponents to find a better proposal that will cost taxpayers half as much as the last plan.

Former Assembly member Rosemary Hagevig, who opposed the last pool plan, supports this one.

"A real conscientious effort was made to bring in something that was going to be useful to the community but at the same time more affordable," Hagevig said. "I was opposed to the last proposal because it was too expensive, and it included a whole bunch of things that weren't related to the pool and pool activities. This new proposal is a much more modest approach."

Chambers was the only Assembly member to vote in July against putting the proposal on the city ballot. Chambers said the newer proposal is much better, and she would be in favor of it if Juneau were in a better economic situation.

"We can't afford it. We are looking at a critical economic change on the horizon in Juneau. Our work force is moving out because they cannot find jobs and housing. We are proposing to tack on even more to their tax bills to build a pool and turf fields. I don't think now is the time to be taking on these huge capital projects on the backs of our already strained homeowners," Chambers said.

Mark O'Brien, co-chairman of the group Juneau for the Pool, said that's the kind of thinking that makes for self-fulfilling prophecies.

"If you never improve the city's infrastructure, you never make it a better place to live. These are the kinds of facilities that families look for when they are looking for a community to live in. We can't afford not to invest in our community," O'Brien said.

O'Brien should know. His own son Kyle holds the state record in the 200-yard freestyle, a feat that helped secure a scholarship that covers 70 percent of his costs at Northwestern University.

"Swimming is an amazingly disciplined sport and it teaches the kids to balance and manage their time between athleticism and academics. That discipline becomes a lifelong skill that they learn. (The pool) is an investment in the future," O'Brien said.

While the ballot measure would allot money for the pool's construction, it's not clear what its yearly operating costs will be.

The city's Augustus Brown Swimming Pool cost $837,000 to operate in 2006, and pulled in $327,000 in revenues, leaving a net operating cost of $510,000 that came from city coffers.

Max Mertz, an accountant who is a treasurer of Juneau for the Pool, said operating costs for the valley pool should be less because it will have a larger recreational component, which produces revenue. Seventy percent of revenues at the downtown pool come from the leisure pool, considered recreational revenue.

"(The new pool) possibly could pay for itself or be as much as $300,00 to $400,000 per year. We're pretty convinced it's not going to generate another $500,000 net cost," Mertz said.

He pointed out that the downtown pool is turning down 70 to 80 percent of rental requests for birthday parties, special instruction and activities such as synchronized swimming.

Marc Matsil, director of Juneau Parks and Recreation, said several factors may improve the new pool's ability to pay for its operating costs: It will have modern and more efficient heating and filtering technology, a better recreational component that should bring in more revenue, and better renting capability for birthday parties or special training classes.

"We could recover 100 percent by increasing costs, but our goal and our mission is not only to provide safe and diverse services for parks and rec users, but also at a reasonable cost," Matsil said.

For Mertz and other proponents, it's a matter of practicality: Kids who live on an ocean should know how to swim. Parents should not have to drive back to downtown after coming home from work.

"I think we've done a pretty good job of addressing the concerns from last time (the 2005 ballot proposal)," Mertz said. "It's hard to measure the value of kids learning how to swim, having a positive recreation outlet for kids in the valley, and the opportunities for seniors and disabled people to exercise. While there is a cost, we think the benefits far outweigh the costs."

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