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Pool committee may be dissolved

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By Brent Schanding

Landmark News Service

Craig Meadows remembers when his T-ball team celebrated its season-end with a splash at the public pool. It used to be a place where kids from the city could mingle with those from the county, and childhood laughter was the by-product of a back-buster or belly-flop.

Now the Eminence senior hopes a weekend concert can lull a community divided over a contentious plan to re-open the city pool, closed by officials a few years ago because of sagging attendance.

"Kids my age, and people younger than me need something to do," said Meadows, secretary of the Making Waves pool commission, an unofficial advocacy group which has reportedly raised about $25,000 to re-open the pool.

Proceeds from the weekend benefit show will be donated to Making Waves and its efforts to re-open the pool, Meadows said.

While city officials had planned to unveil the refurbished pool as early as June, that appears unlikely because of construction delays and political turmoil.

Growing opponents of the project claim costs for the pool are ballooning out of control and Mayor Jim Petitt has vowed to pull the plug on the city's public pool commission as soon as next week. That move could essentially render Making Waves' fundraising efforts ineffective. It also jeopardizes the future of the pool and could prove a political belly-flop for elected officials.

Petitt declined to say Monday why he plans to terminate the pool commission, except to say his office is reviewing legal problems with the pool's contract.

"I'm probably never going to truly say everything," he said. "It's better to leave it alone."

But Petitt indicated Monday that grossly inflated costs have made him reconsider the pool project, which was initially projected to cost less than $35,000.

"I think this is where a lot of people have a problem," he said.

More than $237,000 will likely be needed to repair the pool, according to contractor estimates released earlier this year. That figure excludes operational expenses and renovations for the pool house, which could bust the city's budget.

City council members unanimously agreed to forego four percent raises in February and re-appropriate more than $100,000 from the city's sewer reserves to fund the swimming pool project, against advice from the city's sewer advisor.

Public Works Director William Smith warned those reserves could be crucial to fund a much-needed sewer plant expansion. Petitt declined to comment on how that appropriation could stall infrastructure projects in the city.

"That's another issue we don't want stirred up this week," he said.

But the mayor said he plans to release a statement at the April 14, city council meeting, at which time the council will likely hear input from the public .

Until then, "I don't want to give anyone any ammunition," Petitt said. "I don't want to make anyone mad on either side."

Public discontent

But waters are already boiling for some who say officials should reconsider the pool project in spite of evidence that suggests it could become too costly for the city.

Eminence resident Donnie Young told the city last week he's gathered a petition representing at least 47 others, who disapprove of the pool. More are continuing to rethink the plan after an inflated price tag keeps growing. Renovating the pool and its concession areas and changing stations, will likely cost upwards of $300,000.

"I don't want to keep the pool," resident Fran Kelly told city officials at a public meeting. "There's too much we need in this town besides a little dinky swimming pool."

However, Manda Gingrich, chairman of the Making Waves committee says community support for the pool is still strong.

A Henry County Local web poll found that 105 voters, or more than 70 percent of respondents, think $237,000 is not too much to pay for the pool. About 3 percent said they were unsure, while 26 percent indicated those costs were too high, poll results showed.

Even if plans for the pool go down the drain, the fight for public advocacy won't stop, Gingrich said.

"God forbid they don't open this pool. It's a smack in the face to this community," she said. "But Making Waves doesn't belong to the city, or Jim Petitt. Making Waves is not going away. It will get stronger."

Making Waves will likely regroup and refocus its efforts if officials opt against the pool.

What happens to the thousands in donations from Making Waves contributors?

"I think we ought to write the check and give it back to the people it came from," Petitt said.

E-mail us about this article at editor@hclocal.com.