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Pool's fate dependent on council

y COLE COSGROVE

Sports editor

The future of the Kenneth Jones Pool near Federal Way High School is uncertain following King County Executive Ron Sims’ recommendation last Thursday that the county “mothball” all county-owned pools located within city limits if ownership is not transferred to the local municipality.

Sims is careful to not use the word “close” when referring to the fate of the pools.

Pools that are not transferred to new owners by Jan. 1, 2003 would be “mothballed” — kept full of water and maintained, but not open for public use.

The county has to do that at least that much to fulfill legal requirements of the Forward Thrust bond, approved by voters in 1968.

“If nobody is able to use it, it doesn’t seem like it’s open to me,” said Malcolm Neely, manager of the Kenneth Jones Pool. “Some people are talking about a lawsuit against the county if they close the pool, but the county feels it has all the angles covered.”

State law requires King County to fund numerous services, including the criminal justice system that takes more than 67 percent of the general fund. That leaves a smaller piece of the budget pie for services like parks and pools that are not mandated by the state.

The Forward Thrust bond, which expires in 2010, requires the Kenneth Jones facility to remain as a pool until that expiration time, unless King County transfers the pool to another entity.

Sims’ plan, which still needs the approval of the King County Council, would affect 10 county pools located within incorporated cities, including pools in Federal Way, Des Moines, Auburn and Kent. The Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center is planned to remain open, as will five county pools in unincorporated areas.

Final decisions will not be made until October.

King County has been able to shirk financial responsibility for other Forward

ay, one being the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center and the other the Kenneth Jones Pool. The latter is where our seniors swim for exercise and our children learn to swim. The aquatic center is very often booked for events.”

Preliminary estimates are that the Kenneth Jones Pool operates at a deficit from $250,000 to $400,000 per year. It’s difficult for the county to give an accurate estimate because of the way the county accounts for all of its pools.

Based on data provided by King County, in 2001 the pool cost $674,477 to operate but generated $231,750 in revenue for a net cost of $442,727.

“I believe the Kenneth Jones pool is an important community facility and we should do as much as we can to keep the pool open,” City Councilman Dean McColgan said. “We have continued to work with the county to try and form a partnership, but that’s not looking very promising. It’s unfortunate that the county has decided to close these facilities. I believe the county should go back and thoroughly explore all possibilities. Parks and pools play an important part in a community’s quality of life.

“We were caught off guard by the county’s decision,” McColgan said. “We will be entering into budget discussions in about a month and I’m sure we will be discussing the pool and it’s operation. The truth of the matter is, we are still feeling the affects of Initiative 695 and the general slowing of the economy doesn’t help. We also have a number of capital projects we have to discuss this year, especially a number of road project grants we need to match with city funds. In addition there are civic facilities and park improvements that need to be discussed.

“The pool issue is a priority and we hope we can find a way to keep in open.”

The county is offering a package to help cities defray the cost of operating local pools. The county said it will pay five years of capital cost if the city assumes ownership of the pool. It will also pay the equivalent amount of the mothballing cost of a pool in 2003 if the city either agrees to a one-year operating agreement that covers the rest of the county subsidy, or takes title to the facility.

But even with the county help, it would be unlikely the city could operate the pool without incurring a loss.

“Some ways to improve revenue may include higher fees, partnering with another agency, limited schedules and others,” Kochmar said. “My personal hope is that we’ll be able to work through the issues and keep the pool open.”

Closure

If the pool closes, it could affect the number of people who are able to take swim lessons and life guard training courses.

“We’re very, very busy,” pool manager Neely said. “The aquatic center is not going to be able to take all of our patrons. If we close, all those people aren’t going to have anywhere to go. The aquatic center has a three-month waiting list for swim lessons. We’ve been picking up a lot of those people.”

Right now, the Kenneth Jones Pool is teaching 36 kids every half hour for three hours in the morning, and the same thing for 2 1/2 hours every week night.

“It’s just a big ripple,” Neely said of affects of the pool’s possible closure. “You cut out the Learn to Swim program, and it has huge consequences because that’s where all the new swim team members and life guards come from. When the (Weyerhaeuser King County) Aquatic Center hosts big meets, it’s the local teams that run them. If you’re taking away places for those teams to train, those clubs are going to fold and there won’t be any teams to help run those big meets. It’s a big ripple.”

If the Kenneth Jones Pool is closed, it could jeopardize this fall’s high school swimming season. South Puget Sound League high schools, including those in Federal Way, Kent and Auburn, depend on county pools for practices and meets.

While the pool is located on property owned by Federal Way Public Schools, the district has said it does not have any intention to take over operations of the pool. The county has a 40-year lease with the district, which expires in 2010.

Neely said the city should take over the Kenneth Jones Pool.

“As far as city goes, they’ve had a pretty good deal for the 12 years or so they’ve been incorporated,” he said. “They’ve had the benefit of the aquatic center and all the events and money that it generates in taxes. The county has been paying for two pools all that time. The aquatic center is a regional facility, but at the Kenneth Jones Pool, we mostly get citizens from Federal Way. It makes sense to me that the city take it over.”

The 2001 attendance at the Kenneth Jones Pool was 79,148. The pool has two full-time staff members and 30 other part-time or seasonal employees, who are expected to be laid off if a solution isn’t found by the end of the year. Since the county is on a hiring freeze, the pool could close even sooner if employees leave and are not replaced.

“There’s still some time to wait and see,” Neely said. “But I’d like to have a contingency plan in case it does happen, so we’re not putting the boards on the windows and doors.”

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