For those who have waited close to a decade for Tracy to build a swim center, the approval was a sweet victory.
But that success could well be tempered with bitterness, because an aquatics center that meets the stated needs of its most ardent supporters is unlikely to materialize any time soon.
The reason lies in City Council history and fiscal reality.
The council has said any aquatics center should not affect the general fund, the city account that pays for police and fire protection as well as other city services and employees.
The imperative is obvious — the general fund has run a deficit for six years, draining reserve money stored up in fatter times. The situation was deemed dire enough that voters passed a special half-cent sales tax in 2010 to shore up revenue. City employees, including public safety officers, made pay and benefit concessions to ease the burden on city coffers.
All of which makes a self-sustaining swim center a must, practically and politically.
Consultant RJM Design Group determined in 2011 that the best way to make a swim center pay for itself on the city’s $13.24 million budget is to build a play area, slides and recreation area — a liquid entertainment center.
Other phases could follow, if the money could be found.
One of the last things that would be built is a pool for athletic competition, as RJM found it was the least profitable part of the project, the proverbial drain at the bottom of the water park.
It just so happens a competition pool has been the No. 1 priority for those who’ve shown the strongest support for the Tracy-Surland developer agreement.
Every child and teen — and most adults — who spoke in favor of the swim center Jan. 22 explicitly stated they supported the developer agreement because competitive swimmers need more places to practice, more opportunities to host hometown meets, more chances to shine in the search for scholarships.
That passionate but relatively narrow constituency pressured the City Council for years until it decided to trade $8.1 million in sewer and water fees for $10 million to put toward a swim center.
It’s probably the best deal the city could have got considering the economic environment. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to lead to a competition pool.
According to RJM, that type of pool alone will cost $7.44 million, not counting annual operation costs. If that figure is accurate, it means the city’s $13 million isn’t enough to build a self-sustaining swim center that includes a competition pool.
The math suggests running a competitive pool will require more money somewhere along the line.
The best hope supporters have is for the City Council to ditch the existing swim center plan, build a competition pool and spend the money to run it, even though the general fund is supposedly off the table.
It’s possible, if only the competition pool is built, that the city could put leftover construction funds into a savings account and use it to pay for a few years of maintenance before another funding source is identified.
Alternatively, the city could seek a private operator that would likely charge market-rate use fees, charge market-rate fees on its own, partner with swim teams as it’s done with youth sports clubs at Legacy Fields, or decide that it’s enough of a citywide priority to commit general fund money after all. (Good luck selling employee unions on that one.)
Economic constraints and political pressure to build a competitive pool aren’t going away any time soon, which gives the council precious little dry ground on which to stand.
The only thing that seems certain is that something is going to give.
Right now, that something looks like it could be swimmers’ competitive pool dreams.
• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.