WALNUT CREEK -- For the third time in six years, the city's aquatics programs are again targeted for cuts and swimmers fear they will be left high and dry.
The Walnut Creek aquatic community is outraged over the possibility that Clarke Swim Center may become a seasonal pool beginning this fall, like the city's much smaller Larkey Pool.
Clarke's potential closure for seven months of the year was mentioned as a possible cost-saver at the City Council's April 8 meeting.
This came less than a year after city council members said they wanted to continue the aquatics programs in Walnut Creek and asked swimming groups to help raise money for a new facility.
They also directed city staff to work on partnering with a nonprofit such as the YMCA, or with a business, to help rebuild and operate the pools.
The Aquatic Fund, a coalition of local swim groups, has raised $3 million to help pay for a new facility. That cost was once tagged at $20 million by aquatics consultants for the city, but renovating the existing facility could be done for half that amount, board members say.
All of that may now be in jeopardy.
Closing Clarke "would just devastate the aquatics programs in Walnut Creek and shut the door on any future growth," said Jesse Smyers, a 22-year member of the Walnut Creek Masters Swim Team.
Walnut Creek is nationally known for its swimmers, teams and Olympians. Swim groups such as the Masters, the Aquabears and the Aquanuts use the pool daily all year long. The city recoups about 50 percent of the $1.2 million a year it spends on aquatics at both the Larkey and Clarke pools. Closing the Clarke pool would save the city about $200,000 a year.
Council members are expected to continue the budget discussion at Tuesday's City Council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 1666 N. Main St.
Swim groups have asked via social media and fliers for aquatics supporters to show up at the meeting en masse, wearing purple and pleading for Clarke to remain open.
The closure was one of the few potential targeted cuts mentioned at the April 8 council meeting (ending the city newsletter "The Nutshell" was another.
Elected city leaders went around and around over how to cut the final $1 million of a projected deficit of more than $4 million in the upcoming two-year budget.
While vague references such as cuts to the arts were bandied about, making Clarke a seasonal pool was a specific suggestion mentioned more than once by council members Cindy Silva and Bob Simmons.
This is the third time in the past three budget cycles that winter hours at the pools has been brought up. While some swimmers wonder whether this is an empty threat, others worry the council will finally pull the plug on winter swimming.
"People are tired of this and wondering if this is crying 'wolf,'" said Mike Heaney, coach of the Aquabears. "There is that sense of 'is this ever going to be resolved?' We are a little disappointed that because we don't sit in at every council meeting then we become forgotten about."
Smyers wonders whether part of the push to close the pools is for residents to feel painful service cuts and then vote to increase the sales tax some nonprofit groups are pushing.
Another frustration for swimmers is the city has the money to fund the pools for the next two years. But there is clear division on the council about paying for ongoing city services using that "one time money," including a financial gift from Broadway Plaza for rights to expand its downtown mall.
Smyers says the city should use some of this one-time money to keep the pool open "so we don't lose the momentum as we try to find a solution," he said.
Even if pool hours are cut, that won't necessarily affect the building of a new aquatic facility or a potential partnership with a private business or nonprofit, said Kevin Safine, interim director of arts, recreation and community services. "That's separate from the budget discussions," he said.
But it's not separate in the minds of swimmers.
Heaney said he has already reserved two other facilities for the fall in case the Clarke pool does close. These groups cannot wait around for city leaders to make up their minds.
"All of the programs involved in the aquatics are small business, and we rent and operate out of this facility," he said. "If we are forced to move our business elsewhere, our energy would go into that rather than raising money for a new pool. We have a business to run and it's not something you can just do at the drop of a hat."
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.