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Will aquatics fall between the cracks?

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On the Nov. 4 ballot, Missoula voters will be asked to give a thumbs up or down to a recommendation by the recently assembled Aquatics Task Force to replace existing facilities with an indoor leisure pool including lap lanes at McCormick Park, a leisure pool and a 50-meter competitive pool with locker rooms at Playfair Park (currently home of Spartan pool), and four “splash decks” at Bonner, Franklin, Westside and Marylin parks. To pay for design and construction of the new facilities, the task force suggested that Missoula citizens approve a 20-year revenue bond of $8.1 million. A simple majority will pass the bond.

Donna Gaukler, director of Missoula Parks and Recreation, says that the shoddy current condition of Missoula’s aquatic facilities (the McCormick pool was last upgraded in 1979, and Spartan in 1969) is no one’s fault, but that “in a city that’s not necessarily tax-wealthy, facilities won’t be replaced until they need to be replaced.”

This past spring, says Gaukler, Missoula spent an additional $40,000 to maintain sanitation and safety at the facilities, which was on top of an annual operating budget ranging from $180,000 to $200,000 per year. Since most pools have lifespans of 25–50 years, Gaukler says, Missoula’s current pools have met or surpassed their life-span expectations.

Jack Tuholske, the chairman and treasurer of the Committee for Missoula Aquatics, a ballot-issue committee promoting the bond, says, “The pools obviously have been aging for a long time and it’s not something where you can just throw a little bit of maintenance at it. Pools, like any other structure, reach a useful life, and clearly these are there.”

Proof, Tuholske says, lies in the fact that McCormick pool has for several years leaked up to 18,000 gallons of water per day.

“They patched a good deal of that, but the years of leaking have so eroded the base that it just isn’t safe, in the long run, to maintain a pool at that site,” Tuholske says.

Thus, the ballot issue becomes relatively simple: Since the pool money isn’t in the city’s budget, Missoulians can either agree to a raise in taxes or they can kiss their pools goodbye.

The cost of the proposed property tax hike, according to city estimates, equates to an additional $25.50 per $150,000 of assessed value.

The money would be solely for building purposes, not for maintenance, which raises the question: Will Missoula find itself in this same position 30 years down the road?

Not likely, according to Missoula City Council member Jim McGrath, who says that because the improved facilities would be able to remain open for 12 months a year, as opposed to the current 12 weeks, more maintenance revenue will be generated from year-round pool users. Notably, McCormick pool is the only 50-meter pool in the state of Montana. The aquatics plan calls to move the 50-meter pool over to Spartan, with revenues from competitive swim meets added to aquatic funds, which contribute to maintenance costs.

“That doesn’t mean that in 20 years we won’t want to upgrade it,” McGrath says, “but it won’t be on its last legs” as it is now.

While no one has come out against public aquatics facilities in general, Bob Lovegrove, a current candidate for City Council and former Missoula mayor, wishes that the voters could be presented with more than an $8.1-million-or-nothing choice. Lovegrove wonders if Missoula voters might be more interested in a less expensive proposal to keep facilities open for, say, five months, as opposed to year-round.

“Being trained as an economist, it’s always nice if people have a choice,” Lovegrove says. “We keep hearing about affordable housing and taxes going up 5 percent this year and that sort of thing. It just seemed like if the thing is going to fail because of its expense, it might be nice if there were a less expensive alternative that the voters could have chosen from.”

McGrath says the city is mindful of Lovegrove’s concerns.

“This bond is kind of the smallest one that we can do,” he says. “We could do twice this, easily, and it’s not like we’d be having a waterslide or something. We’re only doing four neighborhood parks and the two pools because we just couldn’t picture putting a $17 million bond out there and expect people to do it.”

When pushing the revenue bond, Tuholske points to pools and splash decks as “an investment in the community’s future. It’s part of a vibrant, healthy community,” he says, noting benefits such as decreased risks of drowning and obesity and increased opportunities for constructive activities for children.

As a public official, Gaukler isn’t allowed to openly endorse a ballot issue, but she says, “I think it’s a matter of community priorities in terms of how the citizens prefer to spend their tax dollars.”

We’ll find out what those priorities are on Nov. 4.

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