The Mirror News

Pool shock

SUPPORTERS of Foster Swimming Pool are reeling from the latest ultimatum from South Gippsland Shire Council.

Council has essentially given the Foster community less than a year in which to make a go of the pool. If pool attendance figures can’t be increased sufficiently and operating costs reined in so the pool is no longer such a drain on council finances, it is in real danger of closing.

At the council meeting last Wednesday, councillors voted to continue to operate the pool for the 2014/15 season, but at a reduced level of service – increasing the temperature which would allow the pool gates to open to 26 degrees, reducing the season length and reducing operating hours during the school term. In addition, any “non-essential expenditure” at the pool will be deferred. This would presumably preclude an upgrade of the changing rooms or the installation of heating – two measures which could help to increase attendances.

With councillors also voting to “work with the Foster community to explore options for alternate management of the Foster pool and an options paper [to] be presented to Council for consideration by December 2014”, there is only a matter of months in which to nut out the necessary measures to revive the pool’s flagging fortunes.

It’s not enough, say the community volunteers who make up Foster Pool’s committee of management. As one, they are devastated by the council’s ultimatum.

“Forcing the one year option onto the community imposes an unrealistic timeline to fully develop a concept for pool usage to be fully underwritten by the community,” said committee treasurer Ian Lyon.

Council is currently calling for tenders for the management of the pool, and Mr Lyon said that it was essential that it was not run by a corporate contractor, with the enormous overheads this apparently involves, if YMCA’s experience is anything to go by.

“In order to get the community re-engaged with the operation of the pool as it was in the past, management should be returned to the community or at the very least a local contractor like Ernie and Carol Bennett, who so successfully manage Toora Pool,” said Mr Lyon.

The president of the pool committee, Lisa Barham-Lomax, said she was “incredibly disappointed” that the council had made “a short-term decision that won’t benefit anyone”.

Ms Barham-Lomax has led the campaign to save Foster Pool since its future operation first came under a cloud with the activation of two trigger points (as indicators of when the continued operation of an outdoor pool needs to be reconsidered) set by the Strategic Direction for Aquatic Facilities in South Gippsland – failure to operate within the identified annual operations budget and a drop in attendances by 20 per cent for two consecutive seasons. As a result, instead of commissioning a master plan to consider the long-term future of Foster Pool, Council undertook a review of the pool. Meanwhile, the pool committee undertook a community survey. Results showed the enormous value placed on the pool by the people of the Foster district.

The committee prepared a detailed written submission for the review, pointing out the potential for pool attendance figures to improve, with Foster’s population forecast to grow by 25 per cent over the next 20 years, and suggesting ways in which the management of the pool could be improved and cost savings made. Committee treasurer Ian Lyon further pressed the committee’s main points in a public presentation to Council the week before the council meeting.

Even on the morning of the meeting pool supporters were arguing their case.

Foster GP and keen swimmer David Iser was involved in the community-driven rebuild of the pool 26 years ago. He said he would hate to see such an important facility disappear. He pointed out that Foster’s medical facilities are booming and expanding, as is the population. He said one of the reasons people are moving to Foster is because of its proximity to the water and it would be dreadful to lose a facility where children can learn to swim. “To make an irreversible decision today would be a tragedy,” he said.

“It would be unfair to have such a fantastic facility dumped in haste,” reiterated David Blake. The retired teacher, a former assistant principal at Foster Primary, argued the necessity of continuing a water safety program for children at Foster Pool. He said it would be prohibitively expensive and not fit into the schools’ busy timetables to bus children from Foster Primary or South Gippsland Secondary College to Toora for swimming lessons or competitions. Anyway, he added, there isn’t the capacity at that pool for the hundreds of extra children that would involve.

Greg Cox said he was speaking as an individual, a Foster resident, a parent and the president of the neighbouring Foster Golf Club, as well as a pool committee member, in pressing the importance of keeping the pool going. He argued against keeping the YMCA on to operate the pool. “That model has not worked. It’s too expensive and led to the budget overrun which was one of the trigger points for the review,” he said, and asked Council to consider allowing the community to operate the pool instead, arguing that the community was best placed to increase pool patronage and keep operating costs down. Mr Cox also made the point that Foster Pool is in better shape than most of the other pools, so requires considerably less money spent on it than pools such as the one at Mirboo North.

The recommendation from shire officers following the review of Foster Pool was that Council continue to operate the pool at a reduced level of service for the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons, so the general expectation was that the pool would have two seasons in which to get its affairs in order. All three speakers on the morning of the council meeting expressed the hope that given two years the community could reverse the fortunes of the pool. So Council’s decision to guarantee the pool only one more year has hit particularly hard.

One can only surmise at the negotiations which went on behind closed doors, but it is fairly safe to assume that parochialism entered into them. Foster perhaps lost an ally to its cause with the absence of Cr Kieran Kennedy. The Coastal-Promontory ward councillor is on extended leave. During the debate Cr Mohya Davies couldn’t resist a dig at another heavily subsidised council facility: “Perhaps if entry to the pool was free like at Coal Creek, attendances might increase!”

It was Coastal-Promontory ward councillor Davies, herself a resident of Foster, who moved the motion and she did so, she said, “with a heavy heart”, stressing that it was a compromise. “This is the best possible outcome, though I know people in the gallery will be disappointed,” she said. “The pool committee must be creative to run the pool at reduced costs,” she said.

Cr Jeanette Harding seconded the motion and tried to gee up the Foster community. “Foster – you can do it. Your pool needs you. The community needs to fight for the pool.”

Greg Cox was too upset to speak to ‘The Mirror’ afterwards. Lisa Barham-Lomax said that cutting short the expected two-year window of opportunity had come as a great shock. The 26 degree rule for opening the pool, she said, was very worrying, because it would mean the pool would not have consistent opening hours, and the importance of consistency was one of the key issues identified in the pool survey.

Ms Barham-Lomax said the committee had worked long and hard, choosing to take an evidence-based approach, producing lots of data and a sound argument as to why the pool should remain open and she couldn’t help feeling that the council was shifting the goalposts, which made it very difficult for the committee to respond in any meaningful way. She needed time, she said, to digest the full ramifications of the council’s decision and to plan a course of action.

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