- J. Adrian Stanley
- Monument Valley Pool has room for more swimmers on a hot afternoon.
Bronya Duhanova was just exiting a Colorado Springs city pool last year when she was approached by a little girl. The child wanted to know what the pool was like.
“Nothing special,” she replied.
“I wish we could go to the pool,” the little girl told her, “but we don’t have that kind of money.”
Relating the story via an email to the Independent, Duhanova writes, “This absolutely broke my heart, I gave her and her brother 16 bucks if their parents ever want to take them.”
Duhanova, who lives in Colorado Springs, wrote that she went home that night and began an “investigation.” She was dismayed to find that the Springs’ city pools, operated by the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, were far more expensive than those of other Front Range cities.
Indeed, in Colorado Springs, an adult pays $10 for a day pass to an outdoor city pool, a child $8, and a family $35. But in Denver, an individual day pass costs $1-$3.50, and local schoolkids, seniors and many low-income residents can get free memberships to all city pools and recreation centers.
In Pueblo, the standard cost of a day’s admission to an outdoor pool is $3-$4, and the city offers free days throughout the summer. After one pool in a low-income area failed to regularly fill to capacity, the city of Pueblo lowered the cost of admission to that pool this year, drawing crowds.
It isn’t just Denver and Pueblo that offer lower prices than the Springs — a quick check shows that prices are also lower in Boulder and Fort Collins.
When it comes to such discrepancies, conversation usually veers to budgets. But it would appear that philosophy may play a bigger role.
Back in 2012, the city of Colorado Springs was still reeling from the recession. A public-private partnership with Swim Colorado Inc. to run three of the city’s outdoor pools had fallen through the year before. Now the YMCA had offered to run three outdoor city pools and two city recreation centers: Portal, Monument Valley and Wilson Ranch pools and Memorial Park Family Center and Cottonwood Creek Family Center. (A fourth outdoor pool, Valley Hi, was not a part of the contract and has since been filled and turned into a kids’ golf course.)
The Y requested a city subsidy of $425,000 — four times what its predecessor wanted — plus additional subsidies should the Y lose money.
In the first year of its contract, the city actually paid the Y a subsidy of $613,412. In the years that followed, the subsidy fluctuated, based on the Y’s cost recovery, but was never again that high. In 2018, it stood at $495,906.
City parks’ Kim King says the partnership made sense for the city — at the time, just opening the pools and keeping them open was a big deal — and there’s been no discussion of bringing the pools back under city operations since the recovery. (The pools are still owned by the city.)
Part of the reason for that may be that the parks and recreation department’s budget never fully recovered from the recession. In 2007, it stood at nearly $19.9 million. It plummeted to $6.8 million in 2010, in the heart of the economic crisis. In 2018, it was $13.5 million.
King says that rather than taking on more duties, her department has looked for ways to save money by contracting services — including most landscaping and mowing.
And while they charge fees, pools are not known for recovering costs, she says: “Pools are typically — they really don’t make money overall.”
She adds that there are free fountains and spray-grounds for kids who can’t afford the pools.
Theresa McDonough, spokesperson for the YMCA, says that the nonprofit simply wanted to keep the pools open: “We look at it as these pools need to be open for the community.”
In the time the Y has run the pools, day pass prices have increased by a dollar for adults and kids, and by $7 for families. Season passes to the pools — for families who already pay the monthly membership and introductory fees to join the Y — increased in 2018 from $175 to $200. (For a two-parent family, membership to the Y costs $99 in initial fees, plus $107 a month.) Non-member families pay $450 for a summer pool pass.
It’s not clear how the public has responded to price increases. While attendance dropped from 2017 to 2018 at all but one pool, the various sites show different high points for attendance since the Y’s takeover. At Monument Valley and Portal pools, for instance, the highest attendance was set in 2015, but Wilson Ranch pool set its record in 2014.
McDonough says the Y isn’t looking to profit off the pools — and they do offer discounts on a case-by-case basis. She says much of the Y’s budget goes to intensive training for lifeguards — some 50 hours up front and four hours every month. That’s a requirement of the Y, she says, since drowning is the leading cause of death for young children.
So how do other communities offer much lower prices? It may simply be that they think of such services differently than the cost-conscious Springs.
“Our philosophy is not to have it pay for itself,” Pueblo’s Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation Mike Sexton says. “It’s a service to our community, the cost recovery on that is very low.”
Sexton says Pueblo brings in about $150,000 from its four outdoor pools, and pays about $600,000 to run them. The pools are old and the city is gradually working to improve and replace infrastructure while keeping prices low. Like all cities in Colorado, Sexton says, Pueblo gets funds from the Colorado Lottery for parks, and uses much of it to work on the pools.
Asked about the impact he thinks the Springs’ higher prices could have, he says, “That’s tough, because you’re scaring people away, No. 1. I mean, they can’t afford that.”
In Denver, John Martinez, the city and county’s deputy executive director of recreation, says that after voters passed a TABOR timeout in 2012, allowing the city/county to keep more of the taxes it collects, Denver introduced the My Denver Card. It gives all Denver schoolkids ages 5 to 18 free access to city pools, recreation centers and cultural facilities.
In 2018, Denver went a step further, offering the My Denver PRIME card — free admission for all Denver residents over age 60 to city pools, recreation, drop-in fitness classes and clubs. (The city already offered deep discounts/free membership to many seniors.) Additionally, Denver offers free membership to recipients of Medicaid and Medicare, and discounts based on income that range from 10 to 90 percent off. For those who can’t get in free, the most expensive annual pass is $369 a year for all pools and rec centers.
All of this is paid for through Denver’s general fund budget, Martinez says, adding that such services might recover 5 percent of their costs.
Like Pueblo, Martinez says Denver views recreation as a service to the public. And he notes that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has been the driving force behind offering more free admissions, in an effort to ensure everyone can stay fit using city facilities, regardless of their income.
“We actually pride ourselves on being a very affordable recreation department,” Martinez says.