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St. Robert takes questions about proposed pool tax vote in August
St. Robert takes questions about proposed pool tax vote in August

Tonya Ellzey questions city officials on their plans for a new city pool in St. Robert.
SAINT ROBERT, Mo. (July 3, 2009) — Only about 20 people turned out Monday evening to hear St. Robert city officials explain a plan that would raise taxes by an estimated $475,000 per year to expand the city’s park system and build an indoor and outdoor pool.

If approved by voters in a special Aug. 4 election at the St. Robert Community Center, a new quarter-cent sales tax would be imposed on most purchases in the St. Robert city limits, while an existing personal property tax on residents would be eliminated. The result is that people living in other cities who shop at Wal-Mart or other stores in St. Robert will be paying to build, expand and maintain the St. Robert park system.

Those who want to vote must register by 5 p.m. on July 8. Absentee voting began on June 23 and runs until 5 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 3, the day before the election; only residents of the city of St. Robert are allowed to vote.

St. Robert City Administrator Alan Clark told those in attendance that the existing city parks budget of $84,000 isn’t anywhere close to enough money to build a pool, especially one that would open in September 2010 as is now being planned.

“That looks on paper like a lot of money, but it’s generally taken us about 2-1/2 years to get a park to where it needs to be for folks to be able use it. This gives you an idea of the real-world costs,” Clark said, noting that only $25,000 per year from the park budget is allocated toward improvements on the city’s main park adjacent to the St. Robert Community Center on Old Route 66.

“Folks, one playground can wipe that out,” Clark said. “These things cost money. Some of these (park improvements) are on the table, but it takes a lot longer to get there with only $84,000 in the annual budget.”

Clark emphasized that the park sales tax wouldn’t be used only for the pool; other planned projects include playgrounds, soccer fields, baseball fields, basketball courts, a golf driving range, building new park restrooms, and refurbishing the existing community center. Even improvements such as small park buildings are expensive — constructing a recent Bosa Park pavilion cost $15,000 when the city had only a $10,000 annual budget for that park, so city officials had to take leftover money from prior budgets and used free labor from students in a CBRN course at Fort Leonard Wood to put up playground equipment.

However, Clark acknowledged that the major use of the park sales tax would be for the pool.

“One of the biggest things that the residents, people in general, have voiced is the lack of a swimming aquatic facility,” Clark said.

While Waynesville city council members had considered a joint pool project with St. Robert and the Waynesville R-VI School District at a location adjacent to East Elementary School near the border between the two cities, that’s not one of the three locations being considered by St. Robert officials. No decision has yet been made on a location, Clark said, but the three most likely options are 65 acres on the existing main park next to the St. Robert Community Center on Old Route 66, 25 acres south of the St. Robert city hall on Eastlawn Avenue and Marshall Drive, and five or more acres being offered by the developers of the Woodland Hills commercial subdivision outside Fort Leonard Wood’s main gate, commonly known as the “Fields Property.”

Clark said local cities may not have much time left. Managers of a privately owned Baptist camp near Waynesville have given notice to a group of senior citizens that they may not be able to swim there much longer due to escalating pool operational costs, and while Fort Leonard Wood commanders are permitting civilians to use their on-post pool, that may not last much longer, either.

“The command on Fort Leonard Wood a couple of years back when Waynesville closed its pool down, they were gracious enough to open up their pool to the general public. From some of the indications we’ve gotten, in about another two years that pool is going to be closed, which means there will not be a pool except for Davidson Fitness Center,” Clark said.

Fort Leonard Wood officials have no plans in place to rebuild their existing outdoor pool if it closes, Clark said, due to the high cost to build and maintain a pool on post.

The new pool planned by the Ireland and Associates architectural firm from Springfield is designed primarily for use by pre-teens but will also accommodate families and older residents, Clark said.

“Once kids get to the age where they start driving, they’re not necessarily going to the pool. Eighty percent of your use is the smaller kids with their moms and dads and their grandparents,” Clark said.

The total cost will be slightly less than $3.8 million for a facility including an outdoor and indoor pool about 37 by 25 feet, with up to 91 people in the pool at one time. The total facility size will be larger than the Splash Zone in Rolla, he said, and may include facilities such as an exercise wall and a later $1 million gym addition.

“That’s a pretty good-size indoor pool,” Clark said.

While the pool is large, Clark said it won’t be enough to accommodate a competitive swim team at Waynesville High School since only three lanes would be available for lap swimming. Six lanes would be required for competitive swimming plus a three-meter diving area, he said.

“We do not see the necessity for competitive swimming at this point,” Clark said. “I do not see us getting a competitive swim team anytime soon competing against Springfield, but that doesn’t mean private clubs wouldn’t do that. This would still accommodate the ability to practice if there’s anyone who wants to do that.”

Adding competitive swimming would likely require a higher tax rate for much more expensive construction.

“We have to be good stewards of the residents’ and the taxpayers’ money. We thought a quarter-cent sales tax was more than enough to give people what they wanted,” Clark said.

The Waynesville pool had to be shut down due to major maintenance problems that engineers said could have created major safety problems leading to serious injuries. Clark said one of the biggest costs to run the pool won’t be the initial construction but rather ongoing maintenance.

Examples of the ongoing maintenance include a need to replace filters every 20 years at a cost of $40,000, deck repairs every five years at a cost of $8,000, and replacing deck equipment and furniture every five years at a cost of $10,000. The proposed city budget for the pool includes setting aside $74,000 per year for maintenance and $158,000 per year for operational costs, including hiring additional full-time staff members to maintain the pool rather than relying on teenage lifeguards.

“Remember I talked about setting aside ‘X’ amount of money every year to get ready to pay for those replacement costs like filters and things of that nature?” Clark said. “What you don’t want is your lifeguards doing maintenance on this facility or your life expectancy on that facility is going to go south real quick. A lot of these lifeguards are going to be teenagers and you can’t put that burden on them.”

“If this project comes to fruition, I guarantee you that maintenance will be done … that’s a lot of money but it needs to be set aside as part of these revenues,” Clark said. “The life expectancy of a pool is about 25 years for municipal pools … You can extend that life if you properly do the maintenance as scheduled. If you do the maintenance, be diligent about it, and you don’t cut corners by using 17-year-old lifeguards. That’s not going to do it.”

Operational costs have to be paid from admission fees, Clark said, since state law doesn’t allow park sales taxes to pay for salaries. Tentative costs include:

• Day passes at $2 for ages 4 to 54, $1 for seniors 55 and up, and free for ages 3 and under

• Season passes at $65 for families, $50 for individuals and $25 for seniors

• Party reservations at $100 per hour for 100 people or less and $150 per hour for up to 150 people

• Day care at $1.50 per child, limited to play structures and zero-depth areas only

Area residents peppered Clark and other city officials with numerous questions about the park project that would be funded by the sales tax, nearly all focused on the pool project.

Linda Daniels asked whether the slide could be redesigned to have a zero-depth slide similar to existing facilities in Lebanon and Rolla.

“It’s just a straight chute that just keeps going so you don’t immediately drop off into the water, so you wouldn’t have to know how to swim in order to use the slide if you are a 5 or 6 year old,” Daniels said. “Even though I am an older woman, I like to be on the slides, but I hate the drop-off on the end because I don’t swim and I hate it when I go underwater at the end of it.”

Martel Goldman said he understood the concern, but believed the primary users of the pool would miss the excitement of a slide that dumps them into water.

Tonya Ellzey asked why St. Robert’s rates are $100 to $150 for an hourlong pool party and said Richland pool rates are $2 per person or $65 for the whole pool for two hours with one lifeguard.

St. Robert City Attorney Kevin Hillman said more than one lifeguard may be needed due to the larger size of the proposed St. Robert pool, which led Ellzey to suggest that there be multiple rates for smaller numbers of party-goers.

“As a mom, I don’t want to have a hundred screaming kids there at a pool party, I just don’t,” Ellzey said.

Hillman cautioned that whatever the rates are, they need to be high enough to cover ongoing costs. The Lebanon pool is free for Laclede County residents, Hillman said, and that has caused what he called “pretty significant revenue shortfalls” for Lebanon.

“They’ve talked about even closing it,” Hillman said.

For the same reason, the proposed St. Robert tax doesn’t include a “sunset clause” such as Rolla’s pool tax, Hillman said.

“It runs out in about two years, and they really don’t have a plan on what they’ll do with it. These things are really expensive to run and typically if you want to make it economic for people to use you’re not going to be able to operate at a profit,” Hillman said.

In response to other questions:

• Clark said the pool facility will comply with all handicapped accessibility rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• Clark and Hillman said proposals to build a re-circulating water system were considered but rejected. While such systems exist in some cities, many cities are considering removing them because of health problems related to bacterial contamination.

• City officials received multiple questions on who would be covered by a family pass, such as students away at college and extended family members such as grandparents taking their grandchildren to the pool. No decisions on that have yet been made, they said.

• Clark said it’s possible the pool will be open before September 2010 if the summer weather is dry enough for rapid construction work, but even if the facility can’t open before school resumes, the indoor pool would still be available for senior citizens and others who want to use it.

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