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Crashing the pool party
Earlier this year, the board of directors for the Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center paid for a financial assessment of the multi-use facility on Fifth Avenue.
Prepared by CPA Linda Saunders, the report told directors what they already knew: the facility built with public funds and operating exclusively on user fees since 2003 is in significant financial trouble.
Without a boost in usage, a taxpayer-funded levy or some other fiscal source, SARC won’t be able to keep its doors open, said board president Susan Sorensen and facility director Taylor McDonald.
So how long can users of the recreation facility expect the doors to stay open? “Two years,” McDonald said.
The perception of SARC, Sorensen said, is that it’s self-sustaining. But that hasn’t been true since at least 2009, she said, and Saunders’ report bears that out.
“We keep thinking the economy is going to change and everything is going to be rosy,” Sorensen said. “Linda’s report shows that is not going to happen.”
Utility rates and staffing costs have continued a steady rise but pass-holder numbers have been relatively steady, and for three-plus years SARC has had to dip into reserves to pay the bills. Those reserves are less than $600,000 now, Sorensen noted, down $140,000 from this time last year.
“We’re not meeting expenditures,” McDonald said.
“I don’t see an empty building,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t find a parking spot. People think we’re full and making tons of money.”
McDonald said SARC has about 2,500 pass-holding patrons.
What staff see instead is heavy usage by those with passes but no increase in pass purchases to keep up with costs.
Built on a promise
The center, known throughout the area by the acronym SARC, was built in the 1980s and opened in 1988. But the vision for SARC really began much earlier, as locals in the early 1960s gathered efforts to build a pool for Sequim youths to use. Bob Clark and others formed a movement that helped form Clallam County Parks & Recreation District No. 1, which led to an outdoor Sequim pool that opened in 1964. Set upon a 100- by 126-foot piece of land owned by the Sequim School District, the pool was uncovered and didn’t have a windproof fence to knock down chilly Sequim winds.
A bond proposal failed in 1980 but in September 1984, the same year the outdoor pool closed for good, voters approved a $2.4-million bond to buy the five acres off of Fifth Avenue and build SARC.
“SARC was built with a commitment, a promise to the community, for an indoor pool where we could teach lessons,” Sorensen says.
For years, the facility operated on a combination of user fees and levy dollars.
As in previous years, SARC directors went to local taxpayers in 2002 to continue supporting the facility with a levy, but saw that measure fail after garnering less than 54 percent of the ballots. (A “super majority,” or 60 percent, of ballots was needed to pass the measure.)
A second ballot measure later that year failed, and by a greater margin; just 43 percent voted for the proposal.
Since then, directors have agreed to not put another levy proposal in front of voters but rather to operate solely on user fees.
And until 2009, that process seemed to work well. Except for a large outlay of capital to add a workout room on the east end of the facility in 2006, revenues exceeded expenditures — by more than $7,000 in 2007 and by more than $79,000 in 2008, according to Saunders’ report.
In 2009, however, revenues dropped about 8 percent and saw total investments and cash drop by 3 percent, Saunders noted.
In 2010, SARC’s finances took bigger hits as expenditures outweighed revenues by more than $40,000 while cash and investments dropped by more than $100,000, Saunders reported.
In 2011, revenues dropped to $871,000, the lowest total in the six years Saunders examined for her report.
Now, in 2012, SARC is treading water financially.
That the facility was built by public dollars and is an attraction to those who are considering moving here should be a reason to support SARC, Sorensen said.
“Having SARC is a huge plus to this community,” she said. “People can’t afford $300 doctor visits, but they can come here (to get healthy and stay healthy).”
McDonald and Sorensen said they are considering any number of options in order to keep SARC open, from grants to another levy proposal to major and minor additions to services SARC offers or to transforming the park district to a metropolitan park district, among others.
McDonald said she’s open to ideas, not matter how big, small, sane or otherwise.
“It’s their facility,” she said, “not ours.”
SARC could close the pool, Sorensen said, since the 190,000-gallon facility feature is the biggest drain on expenditures.
But, as Sorensen noted, “That’s what brought some people here (to Sequim).”
What’s already in the works are rate hikes and the dissolution of Premier Passes. Rates will go up by about 3 percent in 2013, Sorensen says, while Premier Passes — annual passes approved by the board in 2003 with locked-in rates for 10 years — expire, and board members say the facility cannot afford to reinstate the lower rate. (Seniors with Premier Passes see their rate jump from $238 to $369 and adults see their pass prices jump from $255 to $398.)
In 2012, SARC tried to boost numbers with several programs adding the Kidzone section for the youngest of visitors that allows older family members or guardians to use the adult-only parts of the facility, a year-round youth swimming team, an art program, a monthly installment payment program and even longer hours.
Still, though the number of class participants is up, pass sales remain in a steady decline.
Already seeing a kind of financial crisis, facility proponents initiated a “Friends of SARC” group in July 2011. That first meeting, Sorensen said, saw about 25 attendees. A year and a half later, she said, that number has dwindled to three.
The Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2013. Given the center’s state of finances, there’s little guarantee SARC users will see a 30th.
Reach Michael Dashiell at firstname.lastname@example.org.