City pools to close for season this weekend

Cooper Champlin, left, and Jackson Foster swim in the College Hill swimming pool on Aug. 5, 2010.
Cooper Champlin, left, and Jackson Foster swim in the College Hill swimming pool on Aug. 5, 2010. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita's public swimming pools will close for the season this weekend, and budget worries have many wondering when and how they'll open next year.

"We're all concerned about cuts to parks and recreation," said Monica Talbott, a Wichita mom whose daughter swims most days at the College Hill pool.

"This pool is so important to so many kids. It's just a huge part of this neighborhood, this community."

City officials say they are considering options that could include working with private or nonprofit groups to run public pools and some recreation programs.

Last year the city trimmed pool hours and closed pools on Mondays to cut the budget. It also eliminated dozens of maintenance jobs and privatized most park mowing.

But officials hope to trim about $1 million more from next year's parks budget, so they have launched a top-to-bottom look at recreation activities and community education programs.

"We're going to look at all the programs we provide... to get an assessment of whether or not that program should be continued," City Manager Robert Layton said.

"We'll look at alternative delivery methods. 'How can we provide that program in the most effective way?' "

College Hill residents plan to rally on behalf of their pool and others at Tuesday's City Council meeting, where the council is expected to vote on the 2011-12 budget.

A petition being circulated at the College Hill pool says it is "vital to our neighborhood and community," and urges: "Please do not make cuts to our pool or its programs."

"People are alarmed," said Charley Young, co-chairman of the pool committee for the College Hill Neighborhood Association.

"It seems like every year something is cut back. Enough is enough," he said. "There's tons of kids who hang out here every summer. Anytime that is jeopardized, there's a lot of fear."

Last summer, when College Hill residents learned the city would close pools at 6 p.m. weekdays, they raised enough money to keep it open an extra hour. Most city pools close at 5:30 or 6 p.m. All will close for the season Sunday.

Young said he understands the need to cut costs. Wichita, eyeing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, plans to outsource more city services, streamline management, eliminate 65 positions and put top city officials on furlough.

"I look at the park system as a core function of what a city does," said Young, a father of four. "This is the good side of paying your taxes, you know? Your kids can play in a park that's nice and well-maintained and safe."

City Parks Director Doug Kupper said his staff is developing a plan that should keep all 11 public pools open next summer. "That's our intent right now, our driving force — to sustain most of our programs," he said.

"I don't want to give false hope or false worries," he said. "We're listening to people who have been talking to us. We know that our pools in our neighborhoods are important."

But budget challenges mean "everything's on the table," Kupper said. Parks officials are still in discussions with potential partners such as the YMCA to provide some services. They plan to consult with neighborhood groups and advisory councils as they develop their plan.

"Our ultimate goal is to have something sustainable," Kupper said. "The big thing is to... motivate the partners that are already out there in the community to step up and see how we can provide resources.

"We're looking at other communities and what they are doing," he said. "But we may be the benchmark moving forward."

Council member Janet Miller said she supports analyzing parks services and finding cost savings. But she warned that she would not "just rubber-stamp whatever process" officials present.

"My understanding is that we're not talking about closing facilities. We're talking about ways in which we can continue programming... but that programming might look a little different."

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