Seven city pools could close this summer

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is proposing to close more than half of Baltimore's small neighborhood pools this summer to trim costs — a plan some City Council members say they will fight.

While the city's six large pools in public parks, such as those in Patterson Park and Druid Hill Park, would remain open, seven of 13 neighborhood pools would not, Recreation and Parks Director Gregory Bayor said Tuesday.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other council members said they oppose the closures and would lobby the mayor to keep the pools open, as they did two years ago when Young protested a shortened swimming season. Private donors stepped in to keep the pools open longer.

Councilman Bill Henry said closing the pools would be short-sighted.

"We really cannot continue to take away the opportunities that kids have besides running the streets and expect the police commissioner to continue to bring the crime rate down," he said.

A spokesman for Young said the council president was "disappointed" by the proposed pool closings.

"He is going to reach out to the mayor and see if the two of them can find ways to keep all the pools open and ... keep all the rec centers open," Lester Davis said.

Officials have not yet determined which pools would be closed. The neighborhood pools, called "walk-to" pools by city workers, are spread across the city. They include the O'Donnell Heights pool in Southeast Baltimore and the Towanda pool in Park Heights.

The mayor's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for money for pools to be cut by $35,000, to just under $2 million. Overall funding for recreation and parks is set at $33 million, an increase of $1.8 million from this year.

While all of the city's largest pools would remain open, the budget envisions that the number of people who use pools would drop nearly in half from fiscal 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available. About 114,000 residents visited the pools that year; the department has a goal of 65,000 visitors for the coming fiscal year.

Bayor, who will leave the city shortly to take a job in Florida, said some pools would be closed in part because the city lacks the money to repair them. "The walk-to pools are really in dire shape," he said.

In addition, he said, the plan calls for the city's three indoor pools to close for the most part this summer so lifeguards and other staff could be moved to the outdoor pools.

The six neighborhood pools that would open would welcome swimmers for six weeks. The park pools would be open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, though they would be closed on weekdays until school lets out in mid-June.

Councilman Brandon Scott, who previously worked for the Recreation and Parks Department, said he supports the mayor's plan to close pools, calling it an "unfortunate reality." Many neighborhood pools are outdated, lacking showers and restrooms, he said.

As a teenager growing up in Park Heights, Scott said he and his friends routinely bypassed the neighborhood pool to walk to the larger facilities in Druid Hill Park.

Scott praised plans to build more "splash pads," fountains for children to play in, which are less expensive to construct than pools and do not require lifeguard supervision.

But other council members called for all pools to remain open to provide safe places for children and teens to congregate.

Councilman Carl Stokes said pools are particularly important in poor neighborhoods, where children might lack other recreational activities and air conditioning. "They're a bit of a relief for children and adults," he said.

Recreation and Parks officials detailed the planned closures at a budget briefing before Rawlings-Blake, Young, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and other members of the city's spending board.

They also provided more detail about the proposed closure of rec centers as part of Rawlings-Blake's plan to consolidate the city's limited resources in fewer centers. As many as eight centers could close permanently if city officials do not find third-party groups to take over their operations.

Rawlings-Blake plans to expand and enhance 30 of the city's 55 recreation centers. Four others have been given to private groups to run, and officials hope to hand over at least two more.

The city school system is expected to take over some centers attached to schools, and officials hope others could be run as a collaboration between schools and the recreation department.

This marks the third consecutive year of significant changes to recreation programs and pools. Two years ago, the swim season was truncated to save money. Last year, pools opened on a staggered schedule.

Plan highlights

•All six large pools in parks to open

•Seven of 13 neighborhood pools to close

•Budget assumes 65,000 pool visitors, down from 114,000

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