VERO BEACH - Following a rare, sustained public outcry that packed several consecutive city meetings, the Vero Beach City Council has reversed plans to close the Leisure Square pool.
Council planned to close the pool Jan. 1, reducing revenue by $18,750 and reducing expenditures by $135,634, for a net budget decrease of $116,884, which included the elimination of one full time position. The funds had been placed in a new line item for the Vero Beach Skate Park.
That money has now been returned to the Leisure Square pool, at least for one year. Council instructed Finance Director Cindy Lawson to try to close the gap, so the pool can be kept open longer than one more year.
Ms. Lawson said that they are looking at rates and fees. Ms. Lawson suggested that the current gap between city and county rates is small.
“I think the next thing we need to do is look at the rate structure,” Ms. Lawson said. “It’s unduly complicated and difficult to implement. We can streamline it, and then also have a conversation about whether we think we have the proper split between the city and county residents.”
The finance director and council members indicated that fees would probably need to be raised for non-city residents who use the pool.
“About 3/4 of the members of Leisure Square are county residents,” said Mayor Val Zudans. “The city is subsidizing a component that is primarily used by county residents. There is no reason why we can’t have county residents pay a little bit more for the use of these services that they’re being provided within the city.”
“I know there are lots of people who want to have a pool,” Mayor Zudans said. “I understand that. Our job as a city council is to figure out how we provide the services that the people want in an accountable and efficient fashion. I think there’s more than $116,000 worth of revenue increases or cost savings in this Rec. Dept. I think the Finance Department and the Rec. manager should be tasked with bridging that gap without us raising the amount of money that is in this budget. If you can’t do it, the consequence should be that the pool closes.”
At least 75 residents packed the chambers to support keeping the pool open. Jeffrey Nall, one of the leaders of the movement to save the pool, derided the city’s path to financial efficiency.
“I find it curious that so many of you proposed defunding something you want to make more efficient,” Mr. Nall said. “I hope that’s not what you do with our police department and other vital, important aspects of our city government.”
“Since July, 782 people have signed the save-this-pool petition. Leisure Square received about $1,200 in new membership dues on August 24, during the centennial celebration. The effort of everyone here has become one of the most talked about topics in the city. Frankly, it shouldn’t have come to this. Those of you who proposed closing the pool were clearly not in touch with your own everyday constituents.”
“Rather than planning to defund the pool,” Mr. Nall added, “you should have been developing plans to revitalize and enhance our recreation department. Defunding the Leisure Square pool contradicts the city’s own stated commitment to support recreational opportunities for its residents.”
Mayor Zudans applauded the search for economic efficiencies.
“I’m very satisfied with the fact that we are actually going through and looking at this,” Mayor Zudans said. “Future city councils will have more accountability over that portion.”
Councilmember Bob Brackett agreed with extending the pool for one more year while trying to close the gap between expenses and revenue.
“When you have a product that is not making money, you don’t just throw the product out, you see if you can find a way to save it,” Councilmember Brackett said, adding that he had spoken with about 30 residents about the pool.
Vice Mayor Tony Young applauded the move towards efficiency, but said “the pool is a service that needs to be provided to our community.” Vice Mayor Young said that he thinks staff can find savings and enhanced revenue, even if it doesn’t rise to $116,000, which he doesn’t think is necessary to retain the service.
Mr. Young added that the greatest expense in the Recreation Department budget that doesn’t add revenue is the beach lifeguards, over $700,000. “None of us here would want to reduce the lifeguards by $116,000 to balance the budget and retain the pool,” Vice Mayor Young said.
Councilmember Harry Howle agreed that an improved fee system could close much of the gap.
“I think closing the pool at this point is jumping the gun,” Councilmember Howle said. He suggested giving staff a year to figure out how a new rate structure will work. “For something that’s less than 1% of our total budget, closing that gap would be fantastic, clearing the gap would be even better. But I think if you close the gap, it would be sufficient.”
While Mayor Zudans joined in the unanimous vote to keep the pool open one more year, he insisted that the gap between revenue and expenses be closed or eliminated.
“Every dollar that government wastes is stealing from the taxpayers,” Mayor Zudans said. “Our responsibility is to make sure that government is not stealing money from the taxpayers. That’s what this is about.”