The all-too-short central Wisconsin summer season is upon us. The wonderfully refurbished Wausau pools are a refreshingly cool, safe, supervised, and a healthy alternative for those not fortunate enough to have access to cabins ‘up north’ or summer camps. Far too many children are relegated to unsupervised streets, playgrounds (or indoors on electronic devices.) There is also, of course, the nationwide child obesity problem which lack of healthy exercise exacerbates.
In this region, few (if any) places exist to swim outside for free other than Man Made Lake which for most is a considerable drive, has no lifeguards, and is not safe to swim later in the summer. In fact, my family was there one day a number of years ago when an adult swimmer drowned.
I often take my grandchildren to city pools where they see friends from school and delight in the sun and fun. I must admit that watching them is an experience I enjoy almost as much as they do. There is something about the utter joy of children at outdoor pools where the frolicking are truly fascinating to observe —it is really something. The memories will last a lifetime.
Wausau is not a terribly prosperous community and in a state that has been largely left behind in the economic boom enjoyed elsewhere in the US. The city has seen a proliferation of payday lenders, pawnshops, rent to own rip-offs, blighted neighborhoods, vacant storefronts, etc. Lets face it, its not a pretty picture. Per capita median family income in Wausau is just $42,511, ranking it at 297th among Wisconsin cities. Around half of Wausau schoolchildren are on either free or subsidized lunches. Now I read that the schools are having to sponsor free breakfast and lunches for kids during the summer. And middle income children are not immune from economic constraints. Many more fortunate families these days increasingly struggle to survive from paycheck to paycheck.
Not unlike most municipal pools elsewhere, Wausau pools are largely subsidized by the tax base, however modest user fees make them essentially ‘pay to play’ operations. While the pools are widely enjoyed, there are but a handful of occasions during the short summer when the facilities actually reach maximum capacity. The City invested heavily in renovating the facilities, and there can be little if any debate that more full utilization would be a worthy goal. All kids (poor and otherwise) should be allowed into pools during our too short summers. And I would add that adults should be allowed in without charge as well, or there will may be many unsupervised minors.
I recently appeared before both the City Council and the City County Parks Committee advocating on a limited trial basis cost free admission to all residents, replaced by well worded donation boxes. Two Parks Department bureaucrats were present at the Parks Committee meeting (one was the Director on her very first day on the job). However, she and the Assistant Parks Director presented operational and financial rationale against cost-free access to the pools. On the operational side, the new director cited a possible need for more lifeguard staffing. However, the pools have a maximum capacity, and they must maintain an adequate lifeguard staff for that many users. I do not believe that cost free admission would impact lifeguard staffing needs as long as the maximum capacity thresholds are continued to be adhered to. In fact, I would even argue that not collecting admission fees could possibly result in the need for less, not more staffing at the pools. It costs money to have a worker collect admission fees. The ‘City Pages’ article on this matter indicated that the pools bring in about $100,000 per season. That figure is misleading because it includes swimming lesson fees and other activities for fees at the pools. The actual total collected during last season was $60,008 in admissions — which boils down to about half the salary and benefits of an average City employee. It is also critically important to note that no one knows how much can be collected in donation boxes and/or how much staff might be needed or not needed in such an experiment. One City Councilman I talked to indicated that he had seen studies demonstrating that donation boxes at such facilities oftentimes collect more than admission fees.
We will only know if we try.
Someone once stated that the measure of a society is how they treat their most vulnerable members. Usually that has referred to the elderly and the children. I would argue that our elderly are treated fairly well in this country with Social Security, Medicare, and senior discounts everywhere (at Rothschild pool seniors are admitted free, and they discounted at other area pools.) Many have noted that the reason the elders are treated relatively well by our society is due to the fact that they vote in disproportionately large numbers. Of course kids cannot vote. In fact they have no voice.
The children of Wausau are our future and they will remember what (if anything) is done in this matter.
Phil Salamone, Wausau
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