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City Might Close Willard Pool

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:25:00 AM
Michael Howerton
Michael Howerton

Faced with an $80,000 cut in its aquatics program due to a major budget crisis, Berkeley’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department is proposing closure for Willard Pool in July. 

The City of Berkeley leases the city’s oldest outdoor pool from the Berkeley Unified School District, which owns the facility. 

Although Assistant City Manager Lisa Caronna said “nothing was final until the City Council votes on the budget, the closure was a potential reality.” 

“We are squeezing and squeezing to keep all our wonderful programs alive,” Caronna said. “We are getting to a point where we can’t keep everything going anymore.” 

Built in 1963, Willard Pool, located next door to Willard Middle School, has reached the end of its life span. The city’s two other pools, King and West Campus, were built three years later. 

Given the city’s current budget problems, the only way the pool can be saved is if Berkeley voters approve a $19 million pools ballot measure in June, proposed to pay for revamping the city’s swimming pools and building a new warm water pool to replace the one now in the Berkeley High School gym. 

If the measure fails, Berkeley could be in danger of losing two of its four municipal pools by next year, a situation Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates described at Tuesday’s City Council meeting as “deep tapioca.” 

The Berkeley Unified School District plans to tear down the seismically unsafe Old Gym and replace it with classrooms in June 2011. 

Berkeley Youth and Recrea-tion Services Manager Scott Ferris told the council that Willard Pool would probably be “mothballed” unless the bond passes, at which point it could start functioning again after repairs. 

“Of the three pools, Willard is in the worst condition,” Ferris said. Cracked concrete, loose tiles, an outdated gutter drainage system and other repairs are expected to cost $4.6 million, which will be covered by the bond. 

The city’s decision has upset longtime pool users—especially South Berkeley residents—who will be left without a public pool once Willard closes. 

Rob Collier, one of the three co-chairs of the Berkeley Pools Campaign, which is lobbying to rebuild the warm pool and get the other pools fixed, said the news took him by surprise. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz briefly informed the City Council about the proposal at a Jan. 19 council meeting. Kamlarz said Tuesday that he would bring a formal budget proposal detailing Willard’s closure to the Feb. 9 meeting. 

The council is expected to hold a budget workshop outlining the city’s economic health the same day. 

A Dec. 15 report from Kamlarz to the City Council on the June 2010 pools ballot measure says that Berkeley public pools are currently funded by user fees—which include those for walk-ins, classes and rentals—with the balance being covered by the General Fund. 

The city’s budget for the aquatics program for the 2010 financial year is a little over a million dollars.  

Since user fees are not expected to generate more than $314,000 this year, the city will need about $750,000 from the General Fund to bridge the gap. 

The city’s budget for the 2011 financial year includes $1.5 million in General Fund reductions. 

Caronna said that the city was asking departments to consider a 5 percent cut in their 2011 budgets. 

“Reduction levels in future years are not yet determined, but could be more significant,” she said. 

Collier said he understood the city was facing a budget crunch but underscored the importance of Willard Pool as an important neighborhood resource. 

“It’s a victim of deferred maintenance,” Collier said. “Despite its shabby condition it’s much used and much loved by the community.” 

Willard’s swimming facility includes a 3,800-square-foot dive pool and an L-shaped wading area. It also has a homeless shower program, which the city was planning to scrap because of the budget cuts but won’t anymore, Ferris said. 

“It’s socially a very nice program but it did cause a reduction in the number of residents who wanted to use the pool,” Collier said of the shower program. 

He said that it was important to keep the pool running because it benefited a sizable African-American and Latino population at Willard School. 

“You go there on any weekday it’s open and find it jam-packed with kids and adults having fun,” Collier said. “Swimming is an important life skill, which children from minority families are often unable to learn. That’s where Willard comes in.” 

Collier stressed that the only “way to save Willard was to save all the pools” by voting yes on the ballot measure. 

Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents the Willard neighborhood, said the city had threatened to close Willard several times in the past. 

“But we’ve always been able to negotiate and move money around to keep it going,” he said. “We’ll have to see if we can pull another rabbit out of the hat.” 

Extensive repairs coupled with a low user rate led city staff to pick Willard over the other city pools, Caronna said. 

“Combine those two things and you have one of the weakest links in the city,” she said. 

The Citywide Pools Master Plan shows that Willard, which is open May through September, had about 11,000 visits in 2008. 

“The thing about keeping a pool running is it’s expensive—pumps, heat, utility bills all require money—but cities don’t have a good rate of return,” Caronna said. 

Caronna said the city had no plans about what to do with the pool site after it stopped functioning. 

“It bothers me they would close a pool in an under-served neighborhood,” said Estelle Jelinek, who uses Willard when the city closes down the other pools. “It’s not as pretty as the other pools, but I am sure people enjoy swimming there.” 

Willard neighbor Karen Davis is one of them. Davis sent a letter to the City Council Tuesday strongly urging it to keep the pool open. 

“It pains me greatly to learn that the city is thinking about closing Willard Pool’s doors to the public,” wrote Davis, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than three decades. “I’ve been not only a frequent Willard Pool swimmer but a keen observer of the kinds of wonderful things that go on at Willard which are not found at any other Berkeley recreation facility.” 

Davis described entire generations of Latino families enjoying pool picnics; grandmothers sunning themselves under beach umbrellas; children splashing, swimming and reading; fathers teaching their toddlers how to do a butterfly stroke; teenagers singing and dancing in the locker rooms and three generations of the Taylor family, “all of whom grew up, learned to swim, and taught others to swim at Willard Pool.” 

Davis pointed out that a swimming pool on school premises helps children combat obesity and other fitness problems. 

“Willard Pool is why I am proud to call myself a Berkeley resident,” Davis’ letter said. “Please don’t close Willard Pool for good!”