McIntire again: City tosses babies with bath water
If several top city officials had gotten their way, one of Charlottesville's popular summertime attractions would have closed. Acting Parks director Brian Daly and City Councilor David Brown agreed there's just no safe way to operate the McIntire Park kiddie pool without incurring costs that could rise, according to a story in the Daily Progress, as high as $20,000. But would the pricetag really soar so high?
"That seems like a bit much," says pool compliance expert Dave Boylen, who conducted a safety seminar for the Blue Ridge Apartment Council March 25, the day the Progress article appeared.
According to the Progress, parks boss Daly found himself unable to obtain a drain cover that meets new federal safety standards without creating a tripping hazard. However, in a couple of minutes of Googling, a reporter found multiple dealers offering several compliant retrofits, including a 26" x 26" cover from Eureka Manufacturing.
Not only does the sleek, stainless-steel device offer sufficient span to cover the McIntire wading pool's existing 16" x 17" main drain, it appears tapered at all four sides to limit tripping and to prevent tiny toes from getting stubbed. And it costs as little as $928.
Another factor the acting Parks chief, who declined to be interviewed by the Hook, allegedly cites to explain the pricey path to code compliance, is a federal requirement to add an additional safety system when there's just a single drain. Such safety systems can include a vacuum release which detects when there's a blockage–- such as a human body.
Again, a moment of Googling finds several readily available vacuum releases, including the Hayward Stratum model, which poolweb.com sells for $995. Even the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which heads up enforcement and educational efforts, suggests that making swimming safer shouldn't necessarily drain municipal coffers.
"We have personally worked with thousands of pool and spa owners, operating companies, service engineers, design professionals, manufacturers, and state and local health officials, says Commission spokesperson Scott Wolfson. "The prices are coming way down."
Indeed, after the Hook began seeking answers March 25, City spokesperson Ric Barrick released a budget showing prices even better than the Hook could find–- along with thousands of dollars in labor charges that raised the eyebrows of at least one pool contractor who's seen the numbers.
"I am questioning it," says 36-year pool technician Fred von Lewinski of Charlottesville Aquatics. "Twenty thousand dollars is a lot of money."
Charlottesville is not a city afraid to spend money on water amenities. In 1998, it renovated Washington Park with a new pool; and earlier this year, it broke ground on a $3.8 million water-centric overhaul of Meade Park. City leaders may feel that quality trumps quantity.
But there's another problem ostensibly threatening the little pool at McIntire. According to his statements to the Progress, City Councilor and transportation expert Satyendra Huja was alleging that the planned interchange for the under-construction Meadowcreek Parkway is incompatible with the little pool. But does this hold water?
According to an overlay of the approved interchange design released last summer by planners, the new interchange appears to leave untouched not only the pool but also a land buffer and even access to the existing parking lot.
Contacted for this article, Huja clarifies that part of the interchange would probably require demolition of the pool house.
Clearly, a pool suffers without a refuge for its lifeguards (and a place for them to sell water diapers). However, the final footprint of the interchange isn't set, and construction on the interchange isn't scheduled to begin until summer 2010.
"It's just one more thing that makes no sense," says Bob Fenwick, who recently rallied support to turn back a City effort to push softball out of the McIntire Park. "They will use any reason to do what they're going to do."
One controversial City expenditure is $7.5 million for rebricking the pedestrian mall even though some citizens suggested simply re-mortaring. Is the City that once defended a decision to spend $20,000 to rent a Christmas tree really unwilling to pay that amount to save a pool that gets 20-30 daily paying customers during its season?
"If they wanted to keep it open, they could find that money in a heartbeat," says Fenwick, whose two sons cooled off there as children. "For some reason, they are trying to dismember McIntire Park."
Besides its convenient central location that attracts on-the-go moms and the toddlers, summer in eastern McIntire Park offers an adjacent 10-swing playground and a nine-hole, sand-green golf course. However, the mayor has already announced he would like to see the golf replaced with a botanical garden. But now he's saying he might want to save the pool and has put it on the agenda for the council meeting on Monday, April 6.
One thing nobody's suggesting is trying to skirt the new federal rules, which arose after a spate of sometimes-grisly swimming accidents. Between 1999 and 2007, there were 74 reported entrapments–- including the 2002 drowning of a five-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James A. Baker.
The Virginia Graeme Baker Act took effect December 19, 2008 to prevent a repeat. Even when the victims–- typically children between the ages of 5 and 9– survive, they can be disemboweled or eviscerated by a pool drain's powerful suction.
But can't safety repairs come cheaper? Pool expert Boylen, the retail sales manager for Valley Pool & Spa, says he recently oversaw a safety overhaul in New Market that required cutting concrete and installing redundant systems– and still the repairs cost less than $10,000.
Boylen says his company has recently performed compliance inspections–- typically costing $200 to $900–- for such pool-happy customers as the Residence Inn and Keswick Hall. And he already has a relationship selling some chemicals to the City.
"If they want a second opinion," says Boylen, "that's certainly something we could do."
His colleague at Charlottesville Aquatics, von Lewinski, says he'll do it for free.