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Some city pools should be closed but not the oldest

Sunday, November 24, 2002

The Oliver Bath House at the southern end of the 10th Street Bridge is old Pittsburgh in every way. People began swimming there before World War I, and the half-dozen people swimming laps when I hit the water last week were old enough to remember World War II.

It's the city's oldest pool, but Pittsburgh doesn't have many young ones. And with the city looking to plug a $60 million hole in the budget, some of its 32 pools ought to be unplugged.

The pools represent a drop in a $386 million operating budget. They're also an odd thing to ponder in late November. But the city needs to save everywhere. I visited Oliver for the first time because a panel of community leaders appointed by Mayor Tom Murphy said it was the city's least utilized pool.

Evidently, attendance must have been taken in summer, when most people swim outdoors. Oliver, the city's only public indoor pool, had 30,000 visits in 2001. But others aren't so busy.

The city should drain some pools next summer. It can no longer afford them all, certainly not at current fees. At $40 a family and $20 per adult, the annual cost is about a third of what most municipal pools charge elsewhere in Allegheny County.

"I consider it a bargain," says Henry Saternos, 69, who drives to the Oliver Bath House from Scott three times a week, paying the nonresident fee of $50.

A bargain? More like a steal.

The world has changed since Saternos first jumped in the storied pool beneath Oliver's cathedral ceiling. Girls and boys had different days when he was growing up on the South Side, so he could swim without trunks.

The city has lost nearly half its population to the suburbs since, but City Council, like the school board, often acts as if nobody's moved. Pools? Schools? Let's keep 'em all!

Pool admission was free until 1988. In December 1995, council doubled the fees to their present levels after Murphy threatened to close half the pools citywide. When Murphy tried to raise the fees slightly for 1999, council voted to have no fees at all. That snit led by Councilman Jim Ferlo didn't last. Fees were restored to current levels. But they don't nearly cover costs.

Murphy's proposed operating budget for next year has $295,000 projected for pool fees, while salaries for aquatics employees come to $1.1 million. The city is down $800,000 before the first bottle of chlorine is purchased or first repair is made -- and it has only $75,000 budgeted to repair all 32 pools.

Pools are, of course, like parks and libraries. They don't need to make money or even break even. They're supposed to make life sweeter, so residents and businesses stick around. But what if swimmers don't show?

The Manchester pool operated at only 8 percent capacity last summer -- maybe because it's one of six on the North Side. Eleven pools -- not counting Oliver -- were below 20 percent.

Citiparks is supposed to present an "aquatics master plan" next spring that looks at costs, fees, attendance -- you name it. Some cities have moved from the old neighborhood pools to large, new aquatic centers. But the city can't wait that long.

Pittsburgh should close some pools. It should raise the annual fees. It should at least recognize that the year-round pass to Oliver is worth more than the three-month season at other pools. Shower privileges alone are worth that much.

Keith Boyce and Yves Rubinet were at the bathhouse on their lunch hour Wednesday not to swim, but to change clothes for a long run. They came over from TissueInformatics a couple of blocks away. They change, use a locker, run and then shower -- all for the cost of an annual pass.

By the way, with the jogging trail along the Monongahela that now stretches more than four miles, from Eighth Street to Baldwin Township, the bathhouse is ideally situated for this purpose. How many South Side workers even know about it?

Henry W. Oliver willed the city $100,000 to build this bathhouse, and threw in $100,000 as an endowment to cover maintenance and employee salaries. Oliver's bequest has come up short in the 87 years since, though his bath house is still in great shape. If city leaders want to keep Pittsburgh that way, they have to realize that budgets, like pools, aren't bottomless.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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