Hilliard leaders soon will decide on a daily-admission policy at the city's two pools, but a "cashless" system hasn't garnered immediate support.
In the wake of the alleged theft of money between May 2013 and late last year, reported to be "in the six-figure range," Mayor Don Schonhardt is pressing for a no-cash system at the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center at Roger A. Reynolds Municipal Park and the Hilliard East Municipal Pool on Schirtzinger Road.
The former deputy director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department, Heather Ernst, 47, has been charged with theft in office, a third-degree felony, and is accused of stealing cash admission fees collected at the pools from patrons without season passes. Her case did not appear to have been presented to a grand jury for indictment consideration as of Feb. 20.
Daily admission is $10 and $5 for senior citizens.
"As long as there is cash, there is an opportunity for it to go missing," Schonhardt said after listening to Hilliard City Council members discuss admission options Feb. 12 that still included the use of cash. "I prefer a cashless system."
Schonhardt said he believes a new policy is an "administrative decision because it entails the day-to-day operations of the city," but city leaders want council members' opinions and will seek to "address them in a manner that will allow for the city to have adequate internal control while minimizing any inconvenience to residents."
Some City Council members did not appear to support an entirely cashless system.
"I think our residents will want a cash option," City Council President Albert Iosue said.
Councilman Nathan Painter opined it would not be convenient for many families to lose the option of sending a child to the pool with a nominal amount of money for admission and concessions.
"You're punishing kids and parents for something they didn't do," Painter said.
Councilman Andy Teater said if daily admission is made more difficult, "it will reduce (daily) revenue."
"We should be able to take cash and get it to the right spot," Councilman Les Carrier said.
Iosue said he believes city leaders would take into account their concerns to establish a policy that still allows cash to be used in some manner to gain admission to the pools.
Recreation and parks director Steve Mazer said the concerns of council members are viable, but after the theft episode, "we are exploring other avenues."
These will include accepting credit cards, Mazer said.
City leaders also are exploring the use of rechargeable gift cards and machines that would expend tokens for cash, he said.
Each token machine – the city would order three – would cost about $2,500, not counting the costs associated to service the machines as required, he said. The city likely would use a courier service to reconcile the purchase of tokens with cash, Mazer said, so no city employees would handle the exchange of money.
The use of credit-card terminals would require the placement of fiber-optics lines to the East pool and a service fee for using credit cards, he said. Electronic payments, such as Apple Pay, also could be accepted.
The associated hardware and software upgrades would cost about $30,000, Mazer said.
"It's an upgrade we need to do anyway and we believe it will provide a convenience for our patrons," he said.
However, some council members said they see a downside there, too.
"I see a major problem with credit cards or gift cards being stolen," Councilman Tom Baker said, describing a scenario of would-be thieves scavenging towels and bags for the cards.
Mazer said lockers are available but not often are used.
Leaders also are exploring the possibility of using Local Level Events, an online, pay-in-advance ticket-purchasing system used by the school district and Hilliard Arts Council, he said.
Concession sales at the pools have been and will continue to be provided by a third party and only cash currently is accepted for payment, Mazer said. However, the city is discussing with the provider about allowing patrons to use credit cards, he said.
Mazer said whatever policy is decided, it needs to be in place by April 1 so his department can become acclimated to it.
"We are prepared to go with any option that is selected," Mazer said.
Iosue said City Council needs to "make a decision in the next two to four weeks because we open the pools in about two months."
The pools open May 26 for the Memorial Day weekend and the season begins at noon June 1.