As the summer months and the pool season quickly approach, questions remain about the future of Sherman’s Splash for the remainder of the year.
City leaders and members of the community wrestled Monday night with the possibility of reopening the pool in a time of COVID-19 and related budget concerns by the city of Sherman.
At the earliest, the Splash would be able to open on June 26, city officials said.
The issues associated with opening The Splash this summer are numerous,“ said Nate Strauch, Sherman community and support services manager. ”As a community amenity, The Splash loses money every year – hundreds of thousands of dollars, in fact.“
In good years that’s just the cost of doing business as a municipality. But in a budget year where the City is looking to tighten its belt as we brace for the coronavirus-lockdown recession, The Splash stands out as a possible place to trim costs. And there are other considerations as well; chiefly, how we can operate our public pool safely during a pandemic.“
The topic of the Splash came up Monday during a meeting of the city council in which city leaders discussed the upcoming budget for the city. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, city staff is expecting sales tax revenues to fall for the remainder of 2020 and into the upcoming fiscal year.
“This agenda item doesn’t require any action from you, but why some of these people are here is because we’ve had some conversations as a staff on what we do with our budget situation and the delays we’ve seen with COVID(-19) with being able to get what would be a normal level of lifeguards for the splash,” Hefton said. “It has been a weird year and that has bled over into discussion and decisions we need to make about the splash.”
The debate on the future of the Splash summer season come as as cities across the state are asking similar questions. Last month, the city of Denison said that it would open its pools on a limited basis, primarily for scheduled exercise and lap swimmers.
“Only about a dozen Texas cities have announced plans to reopen their municipal pools this summer, and many more have said they will not open at all,” Strauch said. “Sherman is trying to carve out a middle road here by taking things cautiously – both as it relates to public health and the city’s finances.
“But as that financial picture becomes more clear in the next few weeks, we will land on a final decision that hopefully will provide people access to the facility in a safe and fiscally responsible manner.“
As a part of the early budgeting process, staff have told departments to expect a 10 percent budget reduction. Earlier in the meeting, city officials moved to effectively suspend the city’s recycling program, with an expected cost savings of $600,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.
Traditionally, the Splash has not been a large revenue source for the city, with a net operating loss of about $350,000 per year.
In an average year, the Splash would be open for the Memorial Day holiday in late May. However, an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbot had pools across that state closed until May 29.
Under current guidelines, pools are able to operate with 25 percent capacity, meaning that only 100 swimmers would be allowed in the pool at any one time. However city staff said they expect this to be be increased to 50 percent in coming weeks.
With the pool only recently cleared to open, staff would need to fill the pool and then train staff in safety procedures and life-saving techniques, Parks and Recreation Manager Theresa Hutchinson said. At earliest, it would be late June before the pool could open.
“Even at that, it would likely be a limited scope with the numbers we have,” she said.
With the late opening, Hutchinson said about 27 certified lifeguards are available to work for the season. This would force the city to consider reduced operating hours and days for the remainder of the season.
Hutchinson said if the pool was open for about 300 attendees a day, six days a week, for the remaining 7 weeks, it would generate about $63,000 in revenue. However in staffing costs alone, it would have about $69,000 in expenses.
In addition to the cost, Hutchinson said there are significant safety concerns involved in opening.
If the pool were opened at reduced capacity it could lead to long lines of people waiting outside the pool. Also, while chlorine does kill the virus, there are many touch surfaces around the pool that could prove a contact hazard.
“Our main concern is for the safety of our staff,” Hutchinson said “We are worried about the proximity they need to be in any time they are doing any kind of training.”
Lifeguards would also have potential contact risks in the process of doing their jobs and weekly rescue training.
“There is not a mask you can put on when you dive into the water and bring someone up,” she said, noting lifeguards do about 60 rescues each year.
Several members of the community, including lifeguards and family members, spoke out in support of reopening the pool.
Warren Essin said the community needs the pool to be reopened as children end the school year and are looking for activities in the community.
“We need something for our kids right now and the splash is about as good as anything you could do,” he said.
Essin compared COVID-19 to the flu, and noted that the flu historically has killed more people annually in Texas.
“If that’s a reason why we are not doing this, I don’t think it is a good reason and I think the numbers will back it up.”
Laura Baca, who said she has had children work at the Splash for the past several years, said the community needs the pool in a difficult time.“
“My main point is that Sherman needs the Splash for morale,” she said. “We need to not drive by and see it shut down. It is a constant reminder that the economy is down, that things are shut down and that things are not normal.”
You need to be able to drive by there and be able to see people splashing, to see people having fun and we need to be able to see that life is still going on.”
Hefton said he would like to wait another week before city staff makes a decision. In that time, he expects to get numbers for April’s sales tax revenues and a better picture of the financial climate the city has found itself in.
Meanwhile, members of the council urged staff to look at options for opening, including the possibility of a reservation system.
Michael Hutchins is the local government reporter for the Herald Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.