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Still working on budget, Westminster staff recommends municipal pool remain closed this year

The Westminster Common Council discussed the city’s budget at its most recent meeting but still has not voted to approve a version. They agreed to push the vote back so city staff could work to implement recent decisions. A budget must be approved by June 15.

City staff also shared a recommendation that the city pool remain closed for the entire season due to the costs and logistical difficulties of staying compliant with COVID-19 restrictions.

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The budget discussion hinged on the pool also, with council members attempting to refine how much they would be willing to bond out for repairs. City staff is also still working on a plan for the Recreation and Parks Department after the council chose to redirect part of the department’s budget rather than closing the city’s Family Fitness Center.

City Administrator Barbara Matthews let the council know that this year’s budget would likely require amendments in the next year because the full effect of COVID-19 on the economy is still unknown.

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Council President Gregory Pecoraro thanked staff for their hard work crafting a budget in a year where the council has asked for significant revisions on top of an uncertain year that was already a “moving target.”

Pool

Staff recommended that Westminster Municipal Pool on Royer Road not open for this season because of loss of revenue and staffing difficulty.

The pool cannot open until “Phase 2” of the state reopening plan, and at that time, would still require guests to wear masks and take other measures that would change the experience. There is no timeline for when Maryland will enter the next phase of reopening, and Recreation and Parks staff would need 2-3 weeks to get the pool up and running after that announcement.

Matthews said the Central Maryland Swim League canceled its season, meaning the pool would likely see a drop in revenue even if it did open because those families would not be buying memberships.

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The Carroll County Health Department is not doing pool inspections at this time. The city is also not able to train new lifeguards because the American Red Cross is not hosting in-person lifeguard training. Mayor Joe Dominick commented that closing for the season would free up guards to find a job for the full season elsewhere without potentially being called to work at the Westminster pool for a few weeks in late summer.

More information will be available on the city’s official Facebook page and their website westminstermd.gov.

Budget

The council continued to discuss the pool during budget discussions. The budget the council reviewed Monday still had a “placeholder” sum of $3 million for repairs and upgrades to the pool, which the city would plan to bond out for a period of years. That figure was chosen to cover the most expensive option under consideration. The council mostly agreed they would be comfortable with a project costing less than half of that.

In 2019, an auditor found that cracks in the pool’s shell are leaking water and the pump room needs upgrades to handle issues with corrosion and capacity. Though the pool’s issues are not dangerous to guests, they do not meet state code and are costly to the city in wasted water and treatment chemicals.

The company presented options ranging from basic repairs to more ambitious renovations like building a splash pad and upgrading the community room.

Monday, the council went back and forth but did not settle on a number.

Cities may issue bonds in order to fund public projects. They pay back the bond holder in chunks over a longer period of time with some interest. Matthews said the council would have to discuss how the city will fund this debt service.

The city will hold a public hearing for the public to comment on the amount they plan to bond out.

Staff and the city’s committees will use the time before the vote to review the deficit elimination plan for Recreation and Parks and the next phase of the classification and compensation study for staff.

Elected officials were considering a move to close the city’s Family Fitness Center to plug a reported deficit to the city of more than $200,000 per year since at least 2014.

After a passionate public response from center members, the council decided to instead reduce the Recreation and Parks budget for FY21 by the amount of the fitness center’s projected deficit. It is now up to Recreation and Parks staff to close that gap, likely by raising membership fees for the fitness center and cutting costs elsewhere.

The council directed staff to earmark most of that money moved from the Recreation and Parks budget toward fixing “compression” in staff salaries, especially the police department. Compression is when raises do not keep up with increases in starting salaries over the years, resulting in experienced and specialized staff making similar wages to new hires.

The city has been addressing the results of the 2017 classification and compensation study of city staff in phases.

Matthews said she plans to tell the county that Westminster’s property tax rate will stay the same. The council has agreed on this unanimously since the first budget draft was presented to them.

The next Mayor and Common Council meeting is scheduled for June 8, though the council may choose to call an earlier meeting if they think it is needed to pass a budget on time.

To submit public comment or testimony to the city, residents should email the City Clerk’s office at comments@westgov.com. A full name and street address should be included.

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