Council decision: Hilliard pools will remain closed this season

KEVIN CORVO
kcorvo@thisweeknews.com
The Hilliard Family Aquatic Center will not open this year because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Hilliard will stick with City Manager Michelle Crandall's April decision to keep the city's pools closed for the 2020 season.

Hilliard City Council voted 7-0 to do so May 26 after almost an hour of discussion.

The administration had recommended the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center and the Clyde "Butch" Seidle Community Pool remain closed, a decision Crandall announced April 27.

But in mid-May, Gov. Mike DeWine announced an order that set guidelines for pools to reopen starting May 26, setting the stage for the council vote.

A decision not to offer a city service is administrative and does not require a council vote, but if council wanted “to own” the decision about the pools, a vote was required, city attorney Phil Hartmann said.

Council members said the projected $529,000 loss to operate the pools was too much, and they expressed concerns that social-distancing guidelines from the Ohio Department of Health and DeWine’s order would not provide an enjoyable experience for patrons.

Although the decision was unanimous, council members Les Carrier and Omar Tarazi made cases for the pools to open, at least partially, before voting with the five other council members.

Council member Kelly McGivern called the Ohio Department of Health standards “unreasonable” and “difficult to comply with” in a recreational setting.

“We are being set up to fail,” she said, and she asked for those reasons to be explicit in council’s motion to support the administration’s recommendation that the pools remain closed.

Council Vice President Pete Marsh said he wanted to make it explicit that he chose to keep the pools closed for economic reasons.

“Why light half a million dollars on fire? ... (The pools) won’t even be a pleasant experience for guests (or) lifeguards,” he said.

Marsh said “the only responsible decision is to keep (pools) closed this year.”

Council member Tom Baker, citing a survey, said the results indicated that “not enough people (would use the pools) to make it worthwhile.”

On May 21, the city emailed a survey to 2,781 individuals or families who purchased pool memberships in 2019 and asked for replies by May 25, said David Ball, director of communications for Hilliard.

The city received 1,520 responses.

Questions included how safe residents would feel at the pool, how likely they were to visit under the new guidelines, which pool they usually use and how often and how many people are in their family, Ball said.

Council member Cynthia Vermillion concurred with Baker’s assessment that the survey results seemed to indicate that people would forgo visiting the pools because of the restrictions. She also said student lifeguards should not have to be social-distancing enforcers and expressed skepticism about whether young children could grasp the concept of social distancing.

“If they see (a friend), they are going to want to play,” she said.

McGivern said while she was “not OK” with the early decision by Crandall and the administration April 27 to close the pools and the splash pad at Hilliard’s Station Park, 4021 Main St., the state has too many guidelines.

“I think we’ve been set up with a set of regulations that are unfair,” she said.

During deliberations, Carrier had said the decision whether to visit pools could be made by residents.

“People need to make the choice on their own,” he said.

Carrier referenced the decision of the city of Upper Arlington to open its facilities.

However, Crandall said, other communities, such as Grandview Heights and Westerville, have chosen not to open their pools.

Council President Andy Teater said council did not oppose Crandall’s initial decision to close the pools and should not do so now.

“The only thing that changed is the governor said it was OK (to open under strict guidelines). … But I still don’t agree with spending the money,” Teater said.

According to Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department director Ed Merritt, the pools would operate at a combined deficit of $528,897 if opened this year.

A report from Merritt projects expenses of $841,326 and revenue, under the new requirements, of $312,429, for the 2020 pool season.

The revenue is based on a $5-per-person charge for one visit to the pool for an assigned two-hour window and 80% occupancy of those two-hour windows through the season, Crandall said.

According to capacity calculations from the Ohio Department of Health to maintain social distancing, the maximum capacity at the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center at Roger A. Reynolds Municipal Park would be 178 and the capacity at the Clyde “Butch” Seidle Community Pool on Schirtzinger Road would be 87.

Despite the challenges, resident Ted Owens said he thinks closing the pools “was the wrong decision.”

The retired Columbus police detective said leadership entails taking some risk.

“I have no animosity toward Hilliard’s leadership, (but) they are too risk-averse,” Owens said.

He said with precautions in place, and considering that chlorine and ultraviolet light may mitigate the coronavirus, the city had a path to provide limited use of the pools.

During the meeting, Tarazi had asked about the possibility of opening the smaller pool or the splash pads at Hilliard’s Station Park, but Merritt said logistics would prevent that.

Other residents backed council’s direction.

“I believe the council made the right decision,” said resident Deryck Richardson II, who campaigned for a council seat last year. “It’s not only about the safety of our community but the economic impact in running the pools efficiently.”

Resident Anna Huff said she had purchased a family membership for the past 10 years and enjoys bicycling to the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center.

“I am disappointed in the closure, but I completely understand the financial and safety reasoning behind it,” she said.

Huff said she has ordered a backyard pool to use at her home this year.

Apart from financial challenges, the city would face other obstacles, including workforce availability – 68 staff members are needed at both pools for daily operations – and requiring they enforce social-distancing guidelines, Merritt said.

Under the current conditions, new lifeguards cannot be trained, he said.

“We are setting up our staff for failure,” Merritt said.

“My heart breaks, but we can’t (open the pools) responsibly,” McGivern said.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo