Should management of Juneau swimming pools change hands?

Augustus Brown Swimming Pool downtown is one of two aquatic facilities in Juneau. A proposition on next week's municipal election ballot would let the Assembly create an empowered board to manage both buildings. (Photo by Kayla Desroches/KTOO)

Augustus Brown Swimming Pool downtown is one of two aquatic facilities in Juneau. A proposition on next week’s municipal election ballot would let the Assembly create an empowered board to manage both buildings. (Photo by Kayla Desroches/KTOO)

Juneau voters next week will decide whether management of the city’s two swimming pools can be shifted out from under the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

A proposition on the Oct. 7 municipal election ballot would allow the Juneau Assembly to appoint an empowered board to set budgets and raise revenue for the Augustus Brown Swimming Pool and Dimond Park Aquatic Center.

On a recent afternoon at The Augustus Brown pool, adults do laps and children swim around in the shallows. Opinions about the empowered board are mixed.

Bonnie Chaney recently retired as the city’s budget analyst, and uses the pool two to three times a week.

“City employees, they’ve been tasked with looking for all the efficiencies that they can find in all of the city operations and the city’s open to suggestions from citizens. And if it’s a good idea, the city will implement it,” Chaney says. “So I don’t see where an empowered board is going to improve the efficiencies of running the pools.”

For Eric Peter, the most important thing is to make sure the downtown pool stays open.

“I guess as long as it would, you know, take care of any ideas about closing this place or any kind of fiscal difficulty or trouble the place is in, I guess that would be a good thing,” Peter says.

Built in 1972, Augustus Brown needs significant maintenance. Earlier this year, City Manager Kim Kiefer proposed closing the facility to help address the city’s projected $12 million shortfall over the next two years. The shortfall led to several budget cuts and layoffs, and Kiefer argued the city could save money and figure out how to pay for upgrades while the building was mothballed.

But the Assembly decided to listen to pool supporters, who argued for the empowered board. Max Mertz is with Glacier Swim Club, one of the largest city pool user groups. He says the pools tend to get lost in the shuffle under the current management structure as part of the city’s parks and rec department.

“You have Zach Gordon, The Pipeline, Augustus Brown, Dimond Park, youth (and) adults (sports), Treadwell Arena,” Mertz says. “They’re spread very thin. It gives them very little opportunity to really focus on the pools. And so, some of the decisions that are made don’t necessarily happen within a structure that is clearly defined, transparent and effective.”

Mertz thinks an empowered board could increase usage, much like the board for Eaglecrest Ski Area has increased numbers at the city-owned ski hill.

“Because of the fact that we’re not renting the pool when we can, because of the fact that we’re not marketing the pools the way we could be marketing those pools, the pools really aren’t a destination source for recreation for a lot of Juneau in the way that they should be,” says Mertz. “And we think that that could change with successful marketing, better outreach to the community, things that aren’t happening right now.”

Assemblywoman Kate Troll says the empowered board might provide a much-needed jolt of energy to management of the city’s swimming pools.

“They will kind of lend their expertise and help be creative and try things a little bit different in how to generate revenue so that it’s less of a drain on the city,” Troll says. “We want people that have experience, you know, in management as well as the business community.”

But she says a yes vote on the measure would only be the first step.

“It’s to give the Assembly the authority to go forward in setting up the empowered board,” says Troll. “At the same time, we are asking our city manager and our parks and rec staff to come to us to also present their plan on how they would do things differently to raise revenues.”

Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl says he’s against the empowered board, but voted to put it on the ballot to hear what Juneau residents have to say.

“My concern is that if we give a board a target and say, ‘You will raise this percentage of what it costs to run the pools,’ we’re going to start pricing low income people out of our pools and that’s something the Assembly needs to be accountable for doing or not doing,” says Kiehl.

And, he adds, the Assembly should take the community’s good suggestions and implement them.

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