The Bega Valley’s smallest pool is open for another summer today – its 38th swimming season. The long cold days of a Bemboka winter have broken but with it comes a big conversation about the future of the town’s pool.
In fact, the future of all six of the Shire’s public pools is a talking point with Bega Valley Shire Council seeking comment on its Swimming Pools Strategy, which includes the possibility of a rate rise to pay for the service.
A dozen people attended a community briefing at Bemboka Hall last week, meetings at Cobargo, Eden and Pambula took place in the days prior. Meetings at the Bega Civic Centre tonight (September 30) and Candelo Hall on Wednesday (October 2) night will follow a similar theme.
When the gates open at Bemboka today patrons will notice new solar heating and pool covers that have been installed during the offseason.
Meeting those sorts of costs at all six pools into the future is the challenge being detailed to the community.
“User fees and charges don’t meet asset renewal and replacement costs,” Nic Hoynes, Council’s Aquatic and Leisure Facilities Coordinator told those gathered at Bemboka.
Roughly speaking Council currently spends $1.382 million per year to operate all six pools. Pool revenue accounts for 40% of that.
To do everything, including build new replacement pools, Council says they need just over $2 million per year or an increase in total income of 11% per annum.
Bega and Cobargo swimming pools are due for replacement in the next four years, while at Candleo the 2019/20 swimming season has been delayed because of substantial issues with the concrete render as well as a problem with the expansion joint in the 50-metre pool, which has contributed to leaks.
Mayor Kristy McBain reassured Bembokans that council’s goal is to retain all six swimming pools and meet compliance standards into the future.
To do that Council is testing the community’s appetite for a Special Rate Variation (SRV), an extra $146.82 a year per household based on a land value of $204,000.
It’s an unenviable position to be in for small towns whose love and value for their pool goes beyond dollars and cents.
At the meeting in Bemboka, the Mayor and senior staff including General Manager, Leanne Barnes were quizzed on why money to build new pools hasn’t been put aside in past budgets.
“While we have some reserves it’s not enough to cover this,” Cr McBain said.
“The SRV is part of building that fund for pools in the future, these funds will be ringfenced for pools.”
Asked about grant funds, the Mayor said, “the SRV will help with matching funds when applying for grants.”
“Many state and federal grants require matching funds now, but it’s difficult to know what grant funding might be available in the future.”
From the front of Bemboka Hall, one man asked “Do we really need to replace them? Can’t we just maintain them?”
In response, “we have to move with changing community expectations,” Cr McBain said pointing to easy access, change room and toilet facilities.
“We are not planning the Taj Mahal of pools in every town, but most of our pools don’t have ramp access for example.”
Increasing patronage and inturn pool revenue was raised, including the ability to use one season pass across all six Bega Valley pools – which are managed by different operators.
“I’d love to be able to take the kids to Pambula to play with those sprinkly things,” one mum said.
To which the Mayor responded, “this has come up at every meeting so far, its something we have to work out.”
While the audience was small the interest and passion on show was palpable. All who spoke talked about the importance the pool plays in their community, along the lines of comments made by social demographer Bernard Salt in the current ABC TV documentary series ‘The Pool’.
“Australian’s don’t have a city square or a town square as the Italians do as the Greeks do, I think we invented it with the swimming pool,” Mr Salt says.
Cr Tony Allen added his voice pointing to the importance of local children learning to swim in our dynamic coastal – rural landscape.
“This is about the next generation, this will save lives,” he said.
These sorts of discussions are ongoing with two more meetings this week. Broader telephone surveys will also be conducted to take the conversation beyond the swimming community. A survey on Council’s website has so far attracted over 400 responses.
Feedback needs to be submitted before October 20.
Councilors will have the final say with regard to a Special Rate Variation at their November 20 meeting.
“It’s been really valuable for us so far,” Cr McBain said.
“One of the misconceptions coming out of this process is that Council wants to close pools – we need a way to pay for them into the future.
“And while I understand some people saying – I don’t use the pools why should I have to pay for them? The thing is the community as a whole benefit from pools – if you aren’t using them your child or grandchild might, and if you aren’t using them now, maybe you will in the future.
“These are vital community assets, swimming is a life skill and we want to keep these pools in our shire.”
Tonight’s (September 30) meeting is at the Bega Civic Centre, on Wednesday (October 2) it’s Candelo Hall, both meetings start at 5:30 pm. To get a head start you can view the Swimming Pools Strategy Discussion Paper and provide your feedback now via Council’s website.
Candelo Pool is expected to reopen in mid-November once repair works are carried out.