DELMAR — Faced with the guarantee of a financial downfall, the Bethlehem Town Board reached a consensus to not go ahead with opening its public pools at Elm Avenue Park this summer.
Members of the board deliberated for more than 40 minutes on Wednesday, June 24, discussing both the merits and disadvantages of opening two of its three pools to town residents. The topic was not up to a vote, but a presentation from the town’s park and recreation administrator sparked the conversation. They weighed their options minutes after hearing the town could lose more than $150,000 if it opened the pools.
Town Supervisor David VanLuven described the town as in “dire fiscal straits,” bombarded by two “cataclysmic challenges” — the worst pandemic since World War I and the worst economic collapse in three generations. The town had suffered a $1.1 million downfall after the world was gripped by the Great Recession in 2009. VanLuven warned that the town could be facing twice that amount.
“We are in the midst of a terrible pandemic, and I desperately want to open our town pool,” VanLuven said. “And, I don’t think we should.”
Assuming the town was to open the pools in mid-July, town residents would have five weeks to enjoy the cool respite from the summer heat. But, based on the interpretation of health guidelines from both Albany County and the CDC, the pool grounds that can normally hold a capacity of more than 1,000 visitors would be reduced to approximately 200. Those visits would also be reduced from all-day stops to a mere few hours.
The pools at Elm Avenue Park have been the focus of many Town Board meetings for nearly two years. Its dive pool has been closed off to visitors since last year after a survey revealed the need for repair. Board members first wrangled over the option to replace the dives with waterslides. Since listening to a public push to maintain the dive option, the town has also had to deal with the change of contractors. VanLuven said the pools cost the town approximately $150,000 in losses last year, which he attributed to the closed dive pool.
Jason Gallo, the town’s park and recreation director, estimated that the town could generate approximately $70,000 worth of revenue. That would assume the town would not issue season passes and that all visitors would pay by credit card. Only town residents would be permitted onto the pool grounds. That amount of revenue, however, would not offset the nearly $170,000 payroll for part-time employees and the $58,000 in additional expenses to maintain the pool.
Gallo’s presentation to the board followed immediately after a financial discussion from the town’s comptroller. In that report, Michael Cohen shared how the town’s general budget and its various departments are resilient — and vulnerable — to the economic woes caused by virus-related shutdowns.
“I know it sounds like a cop-out, but I’m really, really torn on this one,” said Town Board Member Jim Foster, who agonized over the practical aspects of the discussion against his memories of working at the pools as a teenager. With the town facing a loss, even under what he called the best-case scenario, would be “significant.”
“Given all the unknowns, especially with not knowing where COVID is going to go in the coming months… that leads me to be inclined to not open the pool,” Foster said.
Other board members acknowledged that the pool could alleviate tension for a community crawling out of three months of quarantine. However, with the pandemic still raging across the country, masks and social distancing would still have been required on the pool grounds. Masks, however, would be off while in the water. VanLuven described the scenario of a child breaching and expelling a breath in someone else’s face after swimming underwater as just one example of how the pools’ opening wouldn’t be prudent.
“One of the hardest things about being in town government is not being able to do all the things people want us to do for them,” said VanLuven. “I figure I lose a vote a day because I have to say no to people, constantly. It’s hard, and I hate it.”
Before closing his presentation, Gallo suggested splash pads as a low-cost solution. The cost to the alternative, however, was not itemized for the presentation. Town Board members asked Gallo to investigate the splash pad option further.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.