Proposed pool fee increases small; aquatics program facing larger budgetary challenges

Pool fees are back on the City Commission for Feb. 20 after being pulled from the Feb. 6 agenda.

Small increases are being proposed for open swim fees at the Natatorium, Water Tower and Jaycee pools and at the Mitchell Pool for children two and under. Those increases are each 50 cents.

The proposal would raise the open swim fee at the Natatorium, Water Tower and Jaycee pools for adults from $3.50 to $4 and from $2.50 to $3 for youth 3-17.

Some pool fees proposed to increase 50 cents

The first child under two is free with a paying adult. The proposal would increase the fee for the second child under two from $1.50 to $2 for the Natatorium, Water Tower, Jaycee and Mitchell pools.

No fee increases are proposed for the water slides or flow rider at the water park, water exercise, lap swim fees or pool rental fees.

The proposed increases would generate an estimated $6,140 toward pool operations, according to the staff report. About $4,311 would be generated at Water Tower and Jaycee pools and about $1,829 for the Natatorium.

Those estimates are based on comparable attendance to 2017, but revenues at the outdoor pools are weather dependent.

The fee changes were on the Jan. 15 agenda for a first reading and were planned for a Feb. 6 public hearing.

Commissioner Mary Moe asked to push the hearing to a later date to have further discussion. A work session on the proposal was scheduled for Feb. 20 but has since been canceled.

“When you say it’s just a 50 cent increase, that’s assuming you only go to the pool once,” Moe said during the Jan. 15 meeting. “I think this is a step in the wrong direction.”

Moe said she’d like to see more options before considering the increase.

City Manager Greg Doyon said during the Jan. 15 meeting that pools are challenging to operate.

“You want people to use them, but they are probably one of the most maintenance intensive areas,” Doyon said. “This is a heavily subsidized activity. We know it’s a widely desired service, but we are struggling to maintain it.”

The general fund has been subsidizing the pool fund since at least 2008, meaning general tax revenue is helping maintain the aquatics facilities versus fees for service.

In 2008, the general fund subsidy was $566,061 while the revenue from operations was $460,833. The operating costs that year were $794,348 and total attendance was 77,224, according to Park and Rec data. 2013 was a peak year with $561,268 in revenue from operations, but expenses were $1,002,193. The general fund subsidy that year was $415,154 and attendance was 88,341. In 2016 attendance was 69,422 and last year it was 64,651.

The pools generated $519,228 in revenue in 2017, but expenses were $772,735. The general fund subsidy was $269,369.

According to a Feb. 6 staff memo to commissioners, the proposed fee increase would align the city’s fees with other publicly operated pools, “but any further adjustments wouldn’t be in line with the market at this time, particularly at the Water Park which is at or above market currently.”

The Park and Rec department compared rates at city pools with those in Bozeman, Lewistown, Ft. Benton, Cascade and Conrad.

The pool fund has been deemed “at risk” by the city and has been for years.

Pool fees were last increased in 2014, according to the city. In this and the previous fiscal years, the general fund subsidized the pool budget with $267,861.

The proposal also eliminates the non-resident fee that was established a few years ago, but never implemented.

According to the Park and Recreation department, the alternative to increase these fees is an increased general fund subsidy or a reduction in services and/or facilities.

The city made the last $167,935 debt payment on the Electric City Water Park in 2015, but operating and maintenance costs are still outpacing revenues.

The Park and Recreation Advisory Board voted to recommend the fee increases during their Jan. 8 meeting.

During the commission work session on Feb. 6, staff conducted the second quarter budget review.

The pool fund was discussed as one of the “at risk” funds.

“We’re not in a community that can fully support pools,” Doyon said. “It will require a subsidy.”

Doyon again told commissioners that a decision would need to be made regarding the Natatorium as the costs to maintain the aging facility are rising and the building is in need of major repairs.

The Natatorium was built in 1966 and the facility has been showing its age for some time now.

“At some point, it’s not going to be cost-effective to maintain it,” Doyon said.

Natatorium reopens, facade repairs still in the works

Eventually, Doyon said, the city will likely want to develop a joint aquatics and recreation center facility instead of maintaining two separate facilities. Former Park and Rec director Joe Petrella had been floating that idea to commissioners several years ago.

In 2015, Petrella told commissioners that public pool facilities are often subsidized by the local government and neighborhood pools generally have 50-60 percent cost recovery rates, while standalone pools like the Nat had 65-85 percent cost recovery. At that time, Park and Rec data indicated the Nat traditionally only recovered 30-40 percent of costs and that usage was low.

During that 2015 presentation to commissioners, Petrella said the Nat’s operating budget was $260,000, but when repairs were factored in, it was $593,325. Revenue from lap swim, exercise and kayak classes was $18,810 for September 2014 to April 30, 2015; and revenue for pool rentals was $25,142. The total revenue was $106,000, or $487,325 lower than repairs and operating costs during that time.

The Park and Rec budget that year recommended complete closure of the Nat, but the city instead opted to continue operating the facility with reduced hours to cut costs.

The pool fund has made progress in recent years and the Wave Rider bond was paid off in 2016, but the Wave Rider also needs repairs.

The proposed park district doesn’t include much funding for those repairs in the first three years.

Overall, the Park and Rec department has more than $12 million in deferred maintenance.

Options considered for park district include lower assessment rate, flat fee

The proposed projects under the reduced $1.5 million annual assessment include $300,000 in the first year for bath house improvements at the Electric City Water Park. If the assessment was $2.3 million, the first year projects would include $21,600 for minor improvements at Water Tower/Jaycee Pools.