Last October Berkeley swimmers—fresh from a six-month campaign of chlorine-infested fundraising—presented the City Council with a gift they couldn’t refuse: cold hard cash.
Twenty-seven thousand dollars to be exact, enough to help prevent the scheduled winter closure of Willard Pool.
In June the council paid them back as only a cash strapped city could. They announced the winter closure of both Willard and West Campus pools, leaving swimmers only the jam-packed King Pool from November through May.
This year, the council’s passage of another pool-busting budget caused barely a ripple at city pools for months, but when the signs went up and the letters sent out about the impending closures, a tidal wave began to mount.
Now, in a deal struck with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation at a Tuesday meeting, swimmers have six weeks to raise $13,316 to save neighborhood access to the West Campus pool, located at Addison and Curtis streets.
Berkeley swimmers were slower off the starting block this year and have already conceded Willard Pool, at Telegraph Avenue and Derby Street, which would have required a $70,000 cash infusion. Their struggle is emblematic of the challenge to maintain public recreation when time and money are in short supply.
“I think this is the best we can get,” said Bill Hamilton, a Willard swimmer, who helped organize last year’s drive to save his local pool. “If they cut West Campus, it will be much harder to recover. The people in charge wouldn’t know what they were losing.”
The reason West Campus remains financially salvageable is that the city—much to the swimmers’ frustration—planned to close the pool to the public but keep the pool heated and opened for private swim groups like the Berkeley Bears youth swim team which pays the city $22,000 a year in rent. Willard on the other hand is scheduled only to house a shower program for the homeless.
“[West Campus] was a tough call”, said Parks and Recreation Director Marc Seleznow. “From my point of view we were just trying to save labor costs.”
Pools in Berkeley have always been a financial black hole. For the current fiscal year, based on the presumed winter closures, Seleznow projected that the pools will cost the city $830,000 a year and bring in only $347,700. Although usage and fees are up, so is the cost of natural gas used to keep the pools heated, he said.
Lap swimmers who use the public pools must buy a monthly pass for $68 or pay $4.50 for each visit.
Compounding the problem is that the city’s most logical financial partner, and potentially the swimmer’s most influential political ally—the Berkeley Unified School District, owner of the city-managed pools—droped out of the swim instruction business last year.
“There’s no money for it,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan.
An agreement signed in 1991 between the district and city pledged both sides to reimburse one another for use of each other’s facilities, but neither side has bothered to make payments. Under the 1991 agreement the district was supposed to fund a portion of the electricity, gas and water expenses, estimated to cost $80,000 a year, for school-sponsored water programs.
With money in short supply, South Berkeley’s Willard Pool and West Berkeley’s West Campus Pool have become endangered species each of the past three springs. In 2002, swimmers, armed with goggles, filled the council’s chamber’s and in an election year, pressured the council to reverse its decision to close both pools. Last year, the council voted to close Willard, but swimmers banded together to raise enough money and increase programming to spare the pool.
For swimmers in South and West Berkeley, their anger at this year’s proposed winter pool closings is fueled in part by the perennial choice to keep open North Berkeley’s King Pool.
“King is always the sacred cow,” said longtime Willard swimmer Barbara Traylor. “Why should South Berkeley always have to suck it up?”
Seleznow didn’t have the statistics, but he said King annually attracts the most money and houses the most programs. Willard, conversely, is mainly used for lap swim, while West Campus houses the Berkeley Adult Masters program, which brings upwards of 80 swimmers to the pool.
“That’s why we need West Campus Pool,” said Masters coach Blythe Lucero. “We wouldn’t want to bump people from King.”
Seleznow said he’d be open to alternating pool closures in future years so South and West Berkeley swimmers don’t face the brunt of the pool closures.
Traditionally Berkeley only kept King open in the winter. In the early 1990s they opened the other two pools for winter swimming under pressure from swimmers demanding swimming access in South and West Berkeley.
Winter pool closures aren’t unheard of elsewhere in California. Oakland, with nearly quadruple Berkeley’s population has seven public pools, but keeps only two available to the public from November to April.
With the city earlier this year demanding that each department cut its budget by about 10 percent to close a $10 million deficit in its general fund, recreational programs have taken a hit. While athletic fields and basketball courts remain open, the department has had to cut structured activities that require paid supervision, Seleznow said.
Berkeley’s ability to preserve access has rested primarily on the organization of the swimmers, which unraveled this year. Unlike in previous years, swimmers didn’t lobby the council or offer their services to keep pools open.
“We got burned out,” Traylor said. “People have jobs and a life. We don’t get paid to go to these meetings.”
Now with many of the veterans of past pool wars in permanent retirement, a new crop of swimming advocates is planning a final dash to save West Campus.
They’ve scheduled a 24-hour Swim-A-Thon for early October, which they hope will raise enough get them to next winter.
“We’re in this for the long term,” said Mark Pingree, who is helping organize the effort. “We know next year won’t be the end of our troubles.”