Commissioners reject pool fee increase

City Commissioners split the vote 2-2 on the proposed pool fee increases.

Since Owen Robinson was absent and commission policy requires three affirmative votes, the fee increase proposal failed during the Tuesday meeting.

No members of the public attended the meeting to speak in opposition or support of the proposal.

The prayer group was in attendance as usual, plus one member of the park board and two representatives from NeighborWorks Great Falls.

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

The proposal was to 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.

The first child under two is currently 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 were 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.

City Manager Greg Doyon told commissioners that pools are challenging to fund.

“We know that our fees don’t cover the costs,” Doyon said.

The challenge is finding the balance between the subsidy and fees.

For this and the previous fiscal years, the general fund subsidized the pool budget with $267,861.

That’s money from property taxes and other revenues. The general fund is the primary funding source for the city’s public safety departments.

Doyon said Steve Herrig, the new Park and Rec director, is working to develop a more sustainable balance between fees for service and a general fund subsidy.

But, Doyon told commissioners, if there’s an expectation that there will be an increased general fund subsidy, “that is highly unlikely.”

He said he felt confident in that prediction based on what he knows is coming on the horizon in terms of major capital improvements.

Among those needs will be the Natatorium, since the brick facade recently fell off the front exterior of the building. That was a newer problem with the aging building and a number of other expensive repairs have been identified at the facility. Many of those repairs have been put off due to the lack of available funding.

Doyon said repairs at the Nat could deplete the pool fund reserves, “so what do we do if there’s not a will to close the facility?”

The options are to further reduce operating hours and cut expenses, Doyon said.

Usage at city pools has varied year to year, since the activity is largely dependent on weather, but usage at the Nat has been low for years. Overall, pool attendance seems to be declining in recent years.

If the usage isn’t there, Doyon said, it could mean there isn’t enough interest to sustain a facility.

The proposed park district assessment doesn’t address the needs at the Natatorium, Doyon said.

Commissioner Mary Moe, who had asked that the pool fee proposal be pushed from the originally planned Feb. 6 meeting, said she opposed the 50 cent increase.

She said that if families made one trip to the pool, 50 cents wouldn’t be an issue, but if they go more often, the additional cost adds up.

She said she was having trouble getting used to the idea of an enterprise fund, which is how pools is currently set up. Parking, water, sewer, golf and other city funds are also enterprise funds.

Moe said she wanted to see more effort to increase usage at city pools and collaborate with other community groups to promote physical activity for all ages, but especially children.

“I’m unwilling to go down this road of hiking a free for a pool that nobody is using,” Moe said.

Commissioner Bill Bronson said that everyone paying a little for community amenities is what he remembers throughout his time in the city.

He said the pools will likely always require a mix of fees and general fund subsidies.

He voted in favor of the 50 cent increase, along with Commissioner Tracy Houck.

She said her kids grew up in the swimming programs and that the fees could be expensive, but not as expensive as other activities, like going to the movies.

Houck said the think the city needed to increase the fees now instead of further delaying revenue, and improvements for the pools.

Mayor Bob Kelly also voted against the fee increase and said that right now, he’d rather people focus on the park district proposal.