‘Option’ eyed for city pool project

City Council members have discussed using part of the city’s fund balance to pay for the Thompson Park pool project. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — In the heat of the debate Monday night, Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero floated the idea of using part of the city’s fund balance to pay for the Thompson Park pool project.

Her comments raised a lot of eyebrows.

Was she serious? Was it a bluff to convince Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. and Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo to change their votes and vote for the pool?

“It’s an option,” Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said Tuesday. “If we look at scenarios, it’s a scenario.”

Councilman Horbacz acknowledged the long-debated project to replace the old pool and bathhouse “is in limbo.”

The councilman admitted that he has no idea what comes next for the pool, or whether it will proceed at all.

On Monday night, council members Horbacz, Ruggiero and Ryan Henry Wilkinson believed they had the three votes needed to transfer about $900,000 from the fund balance to pay for a shortage caused by the bids coming in at $2.51 million.

All they had to do was accept the bids and the pool would move forward.

At Monday’s meeting, however, they learned that state bond law requires four votes.

It would take amending the $2.4 million bond council members approved in January 2018 when they were adamant they would not appropriate any more money than that to build the pool.

City Comptroller James E. Mills said the city’s bond counsel advised that the four votes were needed because the “maximum cost” of the project was increasing to $3,042,193, and the way it was getting financed and the scope of the project were changing.

With talk of using the fund balance for the project, Mr. Mills warned council members that the city is already headed “to the financial cliff.”

The fund balance currently sits at $10.1 million.

It needs to remain above a bare minimum of $8 million for cash flow purposes when the city waits for state aid to arrive in late June and sees how sales tax and hydroelectric revenues do, he said.

Dipping too much into the fund balance could cause an unnecessary bill every year at that time after that, he said.

As to no surprise, Mayor Butler is dead set against paying for the pool and bathhouse with the fund balance because of the financial troubles it would cause.

“It’s preposterous,” he said.

Moody’s credit rating, the mayor said, already has warned that the city’s long-term debt “is a challenge” and it could result in the lowering of the city’s bond rating and “financial suicide.”

Mayor Butler wouldn’t say the project was dead, but he also doesn’t see the bond getting amended.

Erin E. Gardner, the city’s parks and recreation superintendent, doesn’t see a need for a pool at Thompson Park.

The city runs outdoor pools at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds and the North Street Elementary School during the summer.

The three council members contend the new pool would be an asset because it would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The new pool would have a “zero grade” feature that would allow swimmers of all ages, young toddlers to senior citizens and anyone with a disability, including people in wheelchairs.

In one area of the pool, swimmers could enter the pool from a gradual ramp.

On Monday night, Councilwoman Ruggiero, who could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, said she envisioned disabled veterans enjoying the pool, citing that easy access.

But Ms. Gardner noted that the pool at the fairgrounds has had a handicapped chair lift for a couple of summers and one will be installed in the pool at the North Street school next week, making them both ADA compliant.

The two pools have again been busy this summer, she said. While the pools opened a week later than past years, attendance at the North Street pool has increased from 6,120 swimmers in 2018 to 7,603 so far this summer. At the fairgrounds pool, however, attendance has dipped from 6,532 to 5,627 at this time last year.

So far, previous problems with the lack of lifeguards have not occurred. The number of lifeguards remain at 31 from the day that the pools opened on July 1.

She expressed concern about the availability of hiring enough lifeguards if a third pool is built.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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