Budget woes could close county pools

King County pools, including the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center and the Kenneth C. Jones Memorial Pool near Federal Way High School, are facing the possibility of being closed because of county budget shortfalls.

While no final decisions have been made, a task force appointed this week by County Executive Ron Sims is considering the possibility of closing county parks, including pools. The task force will make its recommendations to Sims in June. The issue will be discussed by the County Council before a final decision is made this summer.

While 14 county pools would be the first to be closed — possibly as soon as this summer — the aquatic center likely won’t be targeted until the 2003 budget.

It’s not the first time the county pools have been the subject of being closed, but this could be the most serious threat yet.

“The county has never had a financial crisis like this,” said Al Dam, spokesman for King County Parks. “It’s unprecedented. At this point in the game, parks are looking at a bunch of cuts, and depending on the size of (the cuts), they could lead to wide-spread parks closures, including pools.

“(The Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center) is part of the equation, absolutely.”

County pool employees have been warned of possible layoffs, beginning as soon as July 1.

If the Kenneth C. 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.

“It’s a pretty scary time in our society if we can’t support our pools,” said aquatic center director Mike Dunwiddie. “We can’t afford to lose any of these pools.”

The reason the pools are an easy target for cuts is because they, as a national average, recover only 50 percent of the cost invested in them. If it costs $400,000 per year to run a pool, the pool will only bring a return of $200,000.

Some government officials feel that if the pools were run like a true business, they would make money for the county.

“You have to look at what the costs are,” Dunwiddie said, pointing out that utilities and staffing are the two greatest costs for a pool. “Utilities — you can’t change that. We’ve worked with Puget Sound Energy to make the pools energy efficient. And our staff is the lowest-paid staff in the Puget Sound area.

“Then people look at revenue sources. If you double the fees, you cut out a group of people who can’t afford to swim. You’re only servicing a clientele that can afford those fees. It’s a good thing public pools are only recovering 50 percent. If they were at 80 or 90 percent cost recover, the municipality wouldn’t be doing its job — that’s too high a fee to charge.”

If the pools are closed, few alternatives remain for frequent users.

“My family and I use (the Federal Way pool) about five to six times a week,” said Yoon Won, 72. “There are others who use the pool just as much as I do. We swim on a regular basis. We’re all seniors at retirement age. We depend on the pool for social life and more to keep up with our health.

“This is something great for us here. Some of us say we’re willing to pay more for the privilege to swim there, but please don’t cut the programs. A lot of children use it, a lot of disabled children use it. It’s an outlet for them, and for people like us. I don’t know what I would do if they closed it — it’s a concern for all of us.”

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