ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
So, what really is at stake when Hillsboro voters go to the polls April 5 to vote “yes” or “no” on a proposal to raise the local sales tax one-half cent to finance the construction of a new family aquatic center?
Beyond the straightforward question are at least three underlying questions that have emerged since the Hillsboro City Council first proposed the initiative.
Question 1: Do Hillsboroans want a recreational swimming pool in their community?
City officials have maintained that the current pool, built in 1955, is nearing the end of its life expectancy.
“We are considering this to be the last year-if we get through it,” Mayor Delores Dalke said. “That is the way the city council is approaching this.”
Official have talked about the 50-year life expectancy of Hillsboro’s pool in a theoretical sense, but is there physical evidence the pool is on its last legs?
Yes, says City Administrator Steven Garrett.
A primary cause for concern is a high water table under the pool that is applying pressure to the pool floor, he said.
“The floor is cracking, and that’s why we’ve been keeping water in the pool even in the winter-to weigh down the floor so the cracking doesn’t get worse,” he said.
But how imminent is the demise?
“I can’t tell you,” Garrett said. “It could be one of those things where we could limp along by keeping water in the pool during the winter; it could be the same pool we have today for two or three more years-until that moment when the floor gives way.
“When it does happen, we’re immediately out of the pool business,” he said. “Instead of waiting for the Grim Reaper to show up and then figure out what to do, we need to figure out what we’re going to do in anticipation of that event.”
In addition to the floor, other physical aspects of the pool are deteriorating, too.
“The old filters are hard to deal with,” Dalke said. “Some of it has been updated and changed as it needed to be. We also bought some automatic skimming equipment to help clean the pool because the vacuum system wasn’t working adequately anymore. The underwater lighting in the pool was disconnected, I believe, several years ago already.”
But can’t the pool simply be repaired?
Even if the current problems with the floor could be addressed, repairing the pool is not economically feasible because of three initials: ADA.
Any significant improvement to the pool would mean the entire facility would have to meet the accessibility requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“The bathhouse does not come close to meeting ADA,” Dalke said. “Five or six years ago, we had a proposal to refurbish just the bathhouse, and it was in excess of $250,000. We quickly decided that’s not what we want to do for Hillsboro.
“We just can’t repair this pool again,” she added. “I think the decision has to be: Do we want a pool in Hillsboro or don’t we?”
Gordon Mohn, superintendent of Hillsboro schools, said the aquatic center should be supported for that reason alone.
“I can’t imagine Hillsboro not having a swimming pool,” he said. “I can’t imagine what children would do in the summer. If we go down and look at the number of children and families that spend even one afternoon there a week, what are we going to do with those kids?
“To me, it’s just essential.”
“The summer months are the months when most children don’t have structured activities,” she said. “Yes, we have a lot of recreation programs, but some of those things are more focused on particular skills a child has at a particular age. A pool is a place where we learn to swim-and that’s a lifetime activity.”
Question 2: What is the long-term impact on Hillsboro’s future if it does not have a pool?
Garrett addressed that issue in the context of a community’s quality of life.
“Yes, we can all exist without a pool,” he said. “We can also exist without a hospital, and we could also exist without a school and a thriving downtown business district.
“But the proposition the city council is putting forth is that we are not going to go quietly into the night, that we think we have a lot to offer and that we want to grow as a community.
“Part of growing as a community is that you must be, and remain, attractive,” Garrett said. “A thriving downtown business district, good schools, etc., are part of that attractiveness. A swimming pool figures into that, too, and is as important as having a good golf course and a strong rec program.
“It’s something that helps people, both inside and outside, see that we are serious about being in the town business.”
Dalke said she knows of no other community Hillsboro’s size that does not have a swimming pool, although several find themselves, like Hillsboro, needing to replace their aging facility.
“If you look around, those communities that are aggressive and want to remain a viable community are building those new pools,” she said. “They’re not saying, ‘We’ll just do without one.’ That would be a sign of a dying community.
“With the image and the stature that the city of Hillsboro has…we would be taking a giant step backward without a pool.”
Question 3: Can we really afford a new pool?
From the perspective of the average consumer, the answer is yes, according to Mohn. He said the additional economic impact for an individual earning $30,000 a year would be about $45.
“Studies show that 50 to 60 percent of your annual income is spent on items that are subject to sales tax,” he said. “If you figure half those items are bought in Hillsboro, and then multiply that by a half-cent sales tax, you get about $45 a year, or $3.75 a month.
“I sure hope people look at it as a long-range plan and long-range investment.”
On the retail end, those most affected by the sales tax increase-specifically car dealerships and others businesses that sell big-ticket items or in large quantities-say the sale tax increase won’t help their business, that much is certain.
“I’m not going to be against the aquatic center by any means,” said Jan Schroeder, co-owner of the Irv Schroeder County Motors. “However, a raise in sales tax will never make it easier to sell cars.”
The state recently changed the way sales tax is figured on new-car purchases, and that change has lessened the negative impact for dealers who live in cities where the sale tax is higher than the norm.
But Hillsboro dealers say they still will be at a disadvantage if Hillsboro’s sales tax increases to 7.3 percent when a potential buyer lives in a city where the rate is lower.
“I don’t want to hurt the car dealers,” Dalke said. “That is one of the bright spots we have for Hillsboro. But the way it was explained to me, with the change in the way the state does sales tax now, it doesn’t have nearly the impact it did at one time.
“I would rather that we didn’t have to do it as a sales tax issue, but there doesn’t seem to be any other answer to it because the increase in property tax would be so staggering.”
Beyond the immediate issue facing Hillsboro, Dalke said she sees sales tax as being “the way of the future” for funding projects. The sports arena project in Wichita is a high-profile example.
“I wish there was another way to do it, but I don’t know of any,” Dalke said.
A third perspective on the economics of the family aquatic center is whether the city can afford to operate it once it’s built.
In recent days, Dalke said, a few people have pointed to an article that appeared several months ago in a Salina newspaper about communities struggling to cover the operating expenses of their new pools.
“My rebuttal to that argument would be, I’d like them to look at Lindsborg, a town about the same size we are,” Dalke said. “These people were comparing us to Hutchinson and Hays. I think we should compare ourselves to communities that build the same kind of pool, and that’s Lindsborg.”
The testimony there, she said, is that a new pool can be operated with major subsidy.
But Hillsboro leaders have acknowledged that it will take a more entrepreneurial approach to managing the local pool if the city hopes to keep the aquatic center affordable to operate.
Garrett has said he has no illusions for an aquatic center to be a money-maker in Hillsboro, but he does not expect it to be a drain on public money, either.
“The goal would be to not increase the subsidy and to decrease it if possible,” he said.
The subsidy this past year to operate the current pool was about $17,000.
Ultimately, Garrett said, the key economic issue relates to Hillsboro’s longer-range future.
“If we are looking at this issue from the business angle, I think it’s counter-productive for anyone to think we should not have a pool and therefore train our folks to do their aquatic activities at McPherson and other places-where they’ll stop and shop, too.
“I do not view the pool as an outright economic development tool, as some people say. I don’t anticipate busloads of kids coming here to swim in the pool.
“But I want the community to understand what’s at stake-and I can live with any decision they make. But I would hate for our community to make a decision that wasn’t based on facts.
“The economic draw of the pool, I would say, is limited. There is some there, but it’s way down on the top-10 list of benefits for our community.
“But way up on the top-10 list is the ability to provide a service people want that otherwise they would have to leave town to pursue. And once they’ve seen the lights of Paris, it’s hard to get them back to the farm.
“It becomes a long-term investment in attracting people to Hillsboro and keeping people entertained in Hillsboro so that we don’t constantly run them toward McPherson and Newton and elsewhere.”