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Pool funding cut

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Swimmers take laps at Mary Wayte Pool last Thursday. The City Council decided to reduce its annual subsidy to the NW Center, the non-profit organization that runs the Island’s community pool.  -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Swimmers take laps at Mary Wayte Pool last Thursday. The City Council decided to reduce its annual subsidy to the NW Center, the non-profit organization that runs the Island’s community pool.
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City Council takes $20,000 out of annual subsidy for Mary Wayte Pool

By J. Jacob Edel
Mercer Island Reporter

City Councilmembers narrowly decided to begin reducing their annual subsidy to the Mary Wayte Pool, gradually “weaning” the non-profit organization that operates the facility over the next three years.

In a 4-3 vote, the Council approved giving $80,000 to the NW Center this year while reducing the subsidy by an additional $20,000 every year thereafter. The motion was made by Councilmember El Jahncke. Councilmembers Steve Litzow, Sven Goldmanis, Jahncke and Jim Pearman voted in favor of the motion.

“The city should not be in the pool business,” Jahncke said. “This was temporary assistance to keep the pool open and viable. I propose we reduce the subsidy and wean them off the subsidy we are providing.”

The city began giving the NW Center money to help operate and repair the community pool when the county decided it would cease to run it five years ago. In 2002, the Council decided to give $100,000 out of its beautification fund toward the pool and has renewed the subsidy each year.

David Wunderlin, the CEO of the NW Center and an Island resident, said he was surprised by the Council’s decision and that the organization would do all it has to do to keep the doors to the pool open, both now and in the future.

“We’re not going to reduce hours or cut back employees,” Wunderlin said. “We wouldn’t do anything to impede community access to the pool or jeopardize safety. We’ll figure out how to recoup the $20,00 through users.”

Wunderlin also said the non-profit organization made it clear from the beginning that assistance from the local community would be needed to continue operating the pool when it took over from the county.

“We made it clear we could not fund county pools that were closing,” Wunderlin said. “We said we could only get involved with support from communities. We can’t supplement the cost of operating the pools. At that time, the community spoke loud and clear that they were supportive of keeping the pool open and that it was a priority,” Wunderlin said.

The NW Center employs about 40 people at the Mary Wayte Pool, two of whom have disabilities. Wunderlin said the pool breaks even financially every year, and the financial data that the organization is required to show to the city each year supports that. According to the 2006 annual performance report of the Mary Wayte Pool, the difference between the expenses and revenues was $7,557. The year before, the organization made $8,970 more than it spent.

Pete Mayer, assistant city manager and director of Parks and Recreation, made the presentation before the Council last Monday. Mayer told Councilmembers that NW Center representatives were attending another meeting that night, and nobody from the organization was available who qualified to appear before the Island Council.

Before the vote took place, Councilmember Dan Grausz said he was against the motion to reduce the subsidy because the money was well worth it.

“I like saving money as much as the next person, but I can’t think of one thing that draws large crowds when we get involved with supporting the pool and supporting swim clubs,” Grausz said. “This is a resource heavily used by our citizenry. There is no doubt in my mind this is a resource well worth the $100,000. Bickering over $20,000 about this is not something we should be doing.”

While the second part of Jahncke’s motion calls for further reduction of the subsidy each year, it is not binding for future Councils to do so. The clause is officially part of the record that shows the Council’s intent, however, and the contract approved last Monday night expires after a year and must be renewed next fall. The new Council, which will have two new members based on the outcome of last week’s election, will decide again a year from now to continue, increase, reduce or end the subsidy.

Mayor Bryan Cairns asked that Mayer indicate to the NW Center that it was a close vote that could be changed by a future Council.

“I think it is wise to do so,” Cairns said, “because the Council is narrowly divided on the issue.”

Mayer also told the Council that the NW Center plans to begin a capital campaign to raise money for the pools. Mayer said it was possible that the organization could come before the Council in the future asking for a contribution.

Councilmember Jim Pearman said he agreed that the city should begin reducing the annual subsidy but acknowledged he would support the NW Center and Mary Wayte pool should funds for a capital campaign be requested in the future.

“I urge them to come forth with their capital projects and ask us what they need,” Pearman said. “To look at helping them with one-time investments makes good sense to me.”

Should the Council further reduce its contribution to the pool, Wunderlin said the organization would “try to get the money another way.”

“If the community believed the pool was an important resource to keep open and use, we would look at raising rates. That would be one way to go. We would also talk to the community. If they thought that it was crazy to keep the pool open, if the community did not value the pool as much as it used to and was happy to have it close, then that might have to happen. What wouldn’t happen is that we couldn’t take money from our human services that we provide around the state to operate the pool on Mercer Island.”

For information on Mary Wayte Pool and the Northwest Center, go to www.nwcenter.org.

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