By JESSE BURKHARDT
Those who attended the Oct. 21 public hearing on the White Salmon swimming pool -- scheduled after the city budget committee recommended closing the pool in 2010 because of budgetary constraints -- were all but unanimous in asking the City Council to make sure the city kept its pool open in 2010.
One by one, citizens from around the community went to the microphone and expressed strong support for the pool.
Now the question is, will the council members find a way to come up with the necessary funds in the budget to do that?
White Salmon Mayor David Poucher said the hearing was scheduled because the city's elected officials needed to know what the citizens wanted.
"Tonight, we're getting information from the public because we have not heard from citizens as to whether they want to keep the pool open," Poucher said at the beginning of the Wednesday evening session. "You are the taxpayers."
One of the first speakers at the hearing was Bingen City Administrator Jan Brending, who informed the council that Bingen has volunteered to provide the city of White Salmon with an additional $3,000 for 2010 to assist in keeping the pool open. Bingen has been contributing $3,000 per year to offset pool costs in recent years, and is pledging to double it to $6,000 next year.
"The city of Bingen's residents benefit by being able to have access to the White Salmon pool," read an excerpt of an Oct. 21 letter from Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel to White Salmon Mayor David Poucher. "The Bingen City Council believes the benefits to the city have increased along with costs, and has voted to provide $6,000 for services for the year 2010. The city hopes this will assist in keeping the pool open for the 2010 season."
Bill Ward, one of the leaders of the effort to form a parks and recreation district, urged the city to continue to fund the pool.
"We'd like the city to commit to two more years of funding for the pool to allow time for the parks and recreation district to be formed, and for the transition of the pool's operation from the city to the parks and rec committee," Ward said.
Paul Mosbrucker, a member of the White Salmon Valley School Board, said there were important safety issues involved with keeping the pool open.
"Whitson Elementary School kids have swimming and safety lessons at the pool, and that would otherwise be unavailable to them," Mosbrucker said. "If the city will bite the bullet in the short-term for us, long-term, we'll solve the problem."
White Salmon resident Tom Culp said he supported the pool -- with one caveat.
"We want to keep the pool open, but where are the funds going to come from?" Culp questioned. "Might paying to operate the pool hurt another part of the city?"
Mayor Poucher said there were two ways the city could pay for the pool.
"One, we can borrow money from the city itself through an inter-fund loan; or two, we can cut other items from the general fund," Poucher said.
Heather Weisfield pointed out that the community had already strongly indicated its support for the pool through a number of fundraisers and other events.
"The community has made a big investment, and we don't want to see that investment dropped. All of the White Salmon community has already demonstrated a high level of support for the pool," Weisfield said.
Hugh Whitson, owner of McCoy-Holliston Insurance in White Salmon, said he loves swimming and offered to put up his own money to make sure the White Salmon pool stays open so people don't have to go to Hood River to swim.
"I'm tired of paying the bridge toll to go swim," Whitson told members of the City Council. "So McCoy-Holliston will dedicate $1,000 per year over the next two years to help keep the pool open. The parks and rec district will work, but in the interim we need you to keep the pool open for the next two years."
White Salmon Public Works Director Mike Wellman made an emotional appeal to the council members in support of the pool. He explained that many kids from all over the area have learned to swim in the city's pool, and closing that opportunity might someday cost a person's life.
"If a child does not learn water safety and does not learn how to swim and that child loses his life," Wellman said, "each one of us will ask, what would I have paid to keep that child alive?"
Another speaker, Jane Palmer of White Salmon, said closing the pool would send a negative message to young people in the community.
"Sorry -- we don't have money for you," Palmer said. "That speaks huge. Provide opportunities for children, or wait until they get involved in negative behaviors and wind up going to (jail). Pay in a healthy way up front, or give the message to kids that `you don't matter.'"
Toward the end of the meeting, budget committee member Shirley Cox recommended that the pool be closed because the city could no longer afford it.
"We don't have money for this pool," Cox warned. "The citizens of White Salmon have subsidized the pool for everyone outside the city limits, from Underwood and Trout Lake and Lyle and Snowden. The City Council was elected to make hard decisions, and this is one of them. My recommendation as a budget committee member is to close that pool."
After the meeting, Poucher said he was gratified at the strong turnout by citizens to show support for the pool.
"I think the community spoke," Poucher said. "I thought it was awesome. The council now knows where the public is coming from."
In addition to the many voices of support, the city also reported that it had received a total of 77 letters regarding the pool -- every one of them in support of keeping the pool open.
But Poucher pointed out that the money for the pool operations comes from the general fund, which also covers the Police Department, Fire Department, and street repair.
"There is only so much money to go around. Where do we squeeze?" Poucher said. "The council now has to wrestle with that, but I think the pool is going to remain open through some cuts and some borrowing."
A final decision on the city's 2010 budget must come before the end of the year, but Poucher was hopeful the decision would come sooner than that.
"I'm shooting for Nov. 18 for the council to vote and approve the budget," Poucher said.