This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.
Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council have yet to pass a budget for 2019. There’s more than $27 million missing from the city’s primary bank account, and the firm hired to find out where the money ended up has its own issues worth looking into, according to one vocal councilman. Meanwhile, the specter of a property-tax increase has many Philadelphians sweating.
Speculation over which public initiatives will become casualties of the latest financial crunch is a hot topic heading into summer. But free and abundant city pools will remain a respite regardless. Over the next 11 days, starting Tuesday, more than 70 public pools will begin operating for the season and stay open through August.
Public pools might be the best value proposition city government has to offer right now. “I don’t know of any other city that doesn’t charge residents anything,” said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “It’s all free. There’s no barrier to entry. No matter what, pools offer a place to go and a great activity to keep kids cool all summer.”
Chicago has been charging for municipal-pool access for more than 15 years. Atlanta’s outdoor pools cost $5 per visit; in Houston, it’s $7.50. Swimming at public pools is free to residents living inside the District of Columbia, although you need proof of residency. On top of the price point, Philadelphia has more pools to offer, the most per capita in the country, according to city officials. New York City has one operational public pool for every 150,000 residents; in Philadelphia, there’s one for every 23,000 residents.
While there’s anticipation every year for the announcement of pool openings, hotter-than-usual temperatures expected for much of the summer are adding to the frenzy this year. Before the list was released by the city Friday, Ott Lovell joked that it was a secret “harder to get than tickets to Florence and the Machine.”
Swim fever has taken on a new dimension in recent years, after the debut of the “pop-up pool” project in 2015. That year, a grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation helped spruce up the public pool in Francisville with palms, umbrellas, and long wooden benches. (The Knight Foundation also provides grant support to PlanPhilly and WHYY.) An additional 5,000 people experienced the pool compared to the year before.
Riding that momentum, the city launched SwimPhilly in 2016, an initiative that aimed to bring that pop-up treatment to more pools. It has resulted in aqua zumba, lawn chairs, and landscaping alterations being offered at four more locations, including Lawncrest Recreation Center in the Northeast and Pleasant Playground in Mount Airy.
Those offerings are back this year, although without a fresh influx of private funding, the Swim Philly program is unlikely to expand further. That’s despite the positive effects Ott Lovell said she has witnessed in every location the program has touched. “You definitely see a different audience in the Swim Philly pools. You see more adults. You see better behavior. I don’t know if that’s because there are more adults or because the environment is better, but we definitely notice a difference.”
Maintaining public pools year in and year out is costly. Though many large cities have begun to charge to use their pools, others, including Sacramento, Calif., are going through periods of “right-sizing” that involves more permanent closures. In the coming years, some smaller municipalities might have to phase them out altogether. Lancaster County has been reckoning with the difficult fiscal reality of its swimming pools. A 2016 report by Lancaster Online found that some towns incurred more than $100,000 in debt per pool each summer, which did not include the cost of renovations needed to bring those pools up to code.
Patching up concrete and fixing leaks at Philadelphia Parks and Rec’s pools are a springtime ritual, but the backlog of repairs is daunting. Last year, the department placed the estimated cost of repairs at $100 million. A few months later, former City Controller Alan Butkovitz released an audit that suggested 30 percent of the city’s pool locations contained potentially hazardous elements, ranging from broken concrete (tripping hazards) to electrical wires found submerged in water (shock hazards). The audit showed minimal progress after a 2014 City Controller’s report that found similar levels of pool hazards. Without more investment, the problems are persistent.
“We do a massive assessment before the beginning of pool season, which begins back in February and March,” said Ott Lovell. “We know that all of our pools are now compliant.”
The mayor’s $500 million Rebuild initiative holds the promise of tackling some long-overdue pool repairs, she said. “Some places need a complete pool replacement. For example, Fishtown [Lederer] is closed [again] this summer because we don’t have the money to replace it. We have tons of cracked decks, mechanical problems, and pumps going down all the time. All of them could potentially benefit from Rebuild.”
In Philadelphia, the annual cost of upkeep is more than $2 million for the eight to 12 weeks of pool season. Pools are chemically tested each day, in addition to regular inspections by the Department of Public Health. Throughout the summer, sites are staffed by 400 seasonal pool-maintenance aides, 400 lifeguards, and nighttime security at every pool, along with the full-time plumbers at Parks and Rec who mostly handle pool-related work.
All that, in addition to the infrastructure needs, makes opening the pools a massive endeavor — though some consider offering free swim classes in almost every city neighborhood priceless.
“So many cities around the country have gotten rid of their pools and replaced them in spraygrounds. But kids can’t learn to swim in spraygrounds,” said Ott Lovell. “There’s a really rich history of public pools throughout the country, but in Philly, we’ve decided to keep them as part of our social fabric. They’re a huge, huge asset.”
SCHEDULED CITY POOL OPENINGS
Tuesday, June 19
Lawncrest (6000 Rising Sun Ave., 19111)
Wednesday, June 20
Awbury (6101 Ardleigh St., 19138)
Cione (2600 E. Aramingo Ave., 19125)
Feltonville (231 E. Wyoming Ave., 19120)
Kelly (4231 Landsdowne Dr., 19131)
Lee (4328 Haverford Ave., 19104)
Mander (2140 N. 33rd St., 19121)
Max Myers (1601 Hellerman St., 19149)
Murphy (300 W. Shunk St., 19148)
Vare (2600 Morris St., 19145)
Thursday, June 21
Christy (728 S. 55th St., 19143)
Fox Chase (7901 Ridgeway St., 19111)
Francisville (1737 Francis St., 19130)
Hillside (201 Fountain St., 19127)
Jardel (1400 Cottman Ave., 19111)
Northern Liberties (321 Fairmount Ave., 19123)
Pleasant (6720 Boyer St., 19119)
Vogt (4131 Unruh Ave., 19135)
Friday, June 22
East Poplar (820 N. 8th St., 19123)
Morris Estate (1610 W. Chelten Ave., 19126)
Ridgway (901 S. Broad St., 19147)
Samuel (3539 Gaul St., 19134)
Saturday, June 23
Anderson (740 S. 17th St., 19146)
Baker (5433 Lansdowne Ave., 19131)
Cobbs Creek (280 Cobbs Creek Pkwy., 19139)
Kendrick (5822 Ridge Ave., 19128)
Lackman (1101 Bartlett St., 19115)
Monday, June 25
Carousel (4300 Avenue of the Republic, 19131)
Gathers (2501 Diamond St., 19121)
Lincoln (3201 Ryan Ave., 19136)
Lonnie Young (1100 E. Chelten Ave., 19138)
Mitchell (3700 Whitehall Ln., 19114)
Pickett (5700 Wayne Ave., 19144)
Scanlon (1099 E. Tioga St., 19134)
Schmidt (113 W. Ontario St., 19140)
Tuesday, June 26
Barry (1800 Johnston St., 19145)
Dendy (1501 N. 10th St., 19122)
Heitzman (2136 Castor Ave., 19134)
Hunting Park (900 Hunting Park Ave., 19140)
Jacobs (4500 Linden Ave., 19114)
James Finnegan (6900 Grovers Ave., 19142)
Kingsessing (4901 Kingsessing Ave., 19143)
Penrose (1101 W. Susquehanna Rd., 19122)
Ziehler (200 E. Olney Ave., 19120)
Wednesday, June 27
39th & Olive (700 N. 39th St., 19104)
Athletic (1400 N. 26th St., 19121)
Amos (1817 N. 16th St., 19121)
Chew (1800 Washington Ave., 19146)
Cruz (1431 6th St., 19122)
Hancock (1401 N. Hancock St., 19122)
Houseman (5091 Summerdale Ave., 19124)
Sacks (400 Washington Ave., 19147)
Simpson (1010 Arrott St., 19124)
Tustin (5901 W. Columbia Ave., 19151)
Thursday, June 28
12th & Cambria (2901 N. 12th St., 19133)
American Legion (6201 Torresdale Ave., 19135)
Cohox (2901 Cedar St., 19134)
Ford (609 Snyder Ave., 19148)
M.L. King (2101 Cecil B. Moore Ave., 19121)
Mill Creek (743 N. 48th St., 19139)
Piccoli (1501 E. Bristol Ave., 19124)
Shepard (5700 Haverford Ave., 19131)
Friday, June 29
Belfield (2100 W. Chew Ave., 19138)
C.B. Moore (2551 N. 22nd St., 19132)
Cherashore (851 W. Olney Ave., 19120)
Meyers (5800 Chester Ave., 19143)
McVeigh* (400 E. Ontario St., 19134)
O’Connor (2601 South St., 19146)
Shuler (3000 N. 27th St., 19132)
Stinger Square (1400 S. 32nd St., 19146)
Waterloo (2502 N. Howard St., 19133); pool opening may be delayed due to damage.
Bridesburg, Lederer, and Sayre Morris pools are closed for the season.