Public Comment

Berkeley Pools Bond: A Final Chance?

By Charles Altekruse
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 08:58:00 AM

For nearly a decade, Berkeley has known that its public pools were deteriorating and needed replacement. Although we’ve expended considerable time, energy, and funds on assorted studies and band-aid solutions, the key players—especially the City Council and school district (“BUSD” on whose property the pools reside)—simply punted on the tough political choices. 

  Based on Berkeley’s size, demographics, and climate, the best pools solution is quite simple: build the three main pool types (year-around recreation/instruction pool, outdoor lap/competition pool, and indoor hot-water therapy pool), one at each of the existing public pool locations (Willard, King, and West Campus).  

This three-pool solution would satisfy current swimmers and attract new aquatics users, including underserved segments such as families, low-income kids, seniors, and the disabled. It would deliver expanded hours, value-added new facilities and services, environmental protections, economic sustainability, social equity, etc., for generations to come. Furthermore, all existing neighborhoods pool sites would be preserved. It would cost around $25 million and represent a “Grade A” solution. 

But Berkeley may have run out of time, forced to take a position by the pending forced closure of the warm pool by BUSD, mounting and costly pool malfunctions, and the timing of upcoming elections and bond measures. In a bad luck of timing, these realities now collide with a terrible economic environment and growing frustration among homeowners to pass expensive bond measures with questionable perceived value.  

Barring last-minute revisions, the City Council appears poised to punt again, settling on a truly inferior, even miserly long-term aquatics solution that is politically expedient in the short-term but woefully lacking over time. 

Fearing Berkeley citizens are in no mood to take an ambitious step for their city’s future, city leaders are promoting instead a “Grade D” solution. As it now stands, the proposed June 2010 pool bond measure calls for a $20 million bond—half to build a brand new warm pool at West Campus and half to simply rehab the existing three outdoor pools.  

Claiming it cannot afford the appropriate three-pools mix, the city will instead invest in four pools not suited to Berkeley’s needs, including three energy wasteful outdoor pools and one super-heated warm pool, which will be one of the largest municipal therapy pools in the nation and cost nearly three times what was proposed just a few years ago. 

This “four-pool folly” has many deficiencies in addition to being environmentally irresponsible, excluding the most popular, profitable, and energy- efficient indoor rec pool and competition pools for Berkeley swim teams and thereby delivering much less value to many fewer aquatic users. It was introduced at the 11th hour, was never fully vetted to the public, and flies in the face of the Pools Task Force recommendations, public forum inputs, community surveys, and accepted aquatics best practices.  

The worst problem with the current proposal is that it fails at its primary objective: it will save Berkeley taxpayers only a few dollars a year over the superior three-pool alternative—and perhaps even cost more over time. Backs against the wall, the council made a classic “false economy” political calculation: one that appeases voters in the short-term by appearing to save money but over time will result in more money being wasted than saved and, equally important, a deterioration of public services and the common good.  

The “Grade D” proposal was “justified” by a single, last-minute and terribly flawed public poll that dubiously suggested Berkeley citizens simply wanted to “conserve what pools they had.” But our city leaders may be underestimating the voters’ largess—and wisdom—to pay for bond measures that deliver real value and reject those that don’t.  

Neighboring Albany, faced with the need to upgrade its pools, embarked on a community initiative driven from start to finish by an engaged and proactive school district and is building the indoor rec/instructional pool and outdoor lap/competition pool—the two key ingredients currently missing from the Berkeley plan. 

Berkeley City Council members are on record admitting Berkeley deserves “an indoor rec pool” and that “four pools are too many,” yet none could muster the political courage to do what was right: either support the three-pools plan now or postpone the bond measure until the economy improves, while finding a stop-gap warm pool solution. 

Still, the BUSD and City Council and staff are not alone to blame for this failure of vision and leadership; current swimmers, special interests, and a frustrated public are also at fault. The Pools Task Force was badly served by advocates looking out only for themselves: the politics of self-interest and special interest trumped the commonwealth. Hard political choices were punted; sacred cows were protected. In the absence of a political center or aquatics consensus, our elected representatives could have picked up the ball and led—but at some risk—so they punted too! 

  What’s next? Barring any last minute epiphanies from the city, it appears that transient deadlines and economics—rather than enduring courage, compassion, and wisdom—will shape the fate of Berkeley pools well into the 21st century.  

  Is the much-compromised June 2010 Berkeley pools bond measure worth supporting? It depends. If you believe this is Berkeley’s last and best chance for pools, then hold your nose and support the bond. After all, a “Grade D” is still a passing grade, though barely. If you don’t care or you hold out hope that our community has the vision, talent, and stamina to start over and build a better pools solution from the ground up, then maybe not. 

Either way, Berkeley citizens should commit to being part of the solution. Whether the bond measure passes or not, the community should rally in the future to raise the will and money to convert one outdoor pool into a legitimate competitive pool for our swim teams and another into an indoor, year-around rec pool. Everyone else has punted; it’s now the voters’ turn to play ball. 

P.S.: A brief word of appreciation to the Daily Planet for its thorough and accurate coverage of Berkeley aquatics issues through the years. Thank you! 


Charles Altekruse is a former Pools Task Force Member.