The continuing drama of the Columbus Aquatic Center, now in its fourth season, doesn’t appear close to a tidy Downton Abbey resolution. Instead, this story just seems to keep getting more complicated, and not in a happy way.
The history of the city’s swim center, as detailed in Mike Owen’s special Sunday report, tells a story of a city doing both too much and too little. It’s about city leaders deciding — not necessarily without good reason and a good idea — to build more than what a tax referendum said they had to build, and then deluding themselves about what it would cost to sustain what they had built.
The most prominent character in this story is a city official who was brought into town to clean up and repair a Parks and Recreation Department tarnished and broken by criminal scandal. It is a mission at which James Worsley has succeeded to a remarkable extent that has been laudable, and lauded.
But appreciation for his performance, at least by some members of Columbus Council, didn’t extend to his playing the part of Cassandra three years ago when he warned the city what the real cost of running the natatorium full time was going to be. He’s been reminded that there is sometimes a heavy price to pay for being right about things people don’t want to hear. Sometimes the messenger ends up picking buckshot out of his buttocks.
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To be sure, the message was not one any city official would have been eager to hear at a time of severe budgetary squeeze. Worsley estimated the annual cost at about $1.2 million, which left councilors stunned.
They opted — quite rightly, in the interest of saving taxpayer money — to seek bids from private contractors to operate the facility. When an outfit called USA Pools submitted a bid that, not counting utilities, was little more than half what Worsley had estimated, maybe it should have raised the proverbial red flag. It didn’t, the city contracted with USA Pools to run the Aquatic Center, and the result was a well-documented disaster that need not be recounted in detail here. (Basically, USA Pools’ biggest problem in managing the Aquatic Center was its utter and abject failure to manage the Aquatic Center.)
The city told its private contractor it would get no more public money than we were legally obligated to pay, and to get out of town ASAP. Since then, Worsley’s department has been tasked with running the natatorium on the budget agreed on by its incompetent predecessors. Two Parks & Rec administrators have been working 80-hour weeks to keep the center open, and there will most likely be no more money to spare for the department in the next budget.
The Columbus swimming community has praised Parks & Rec’s operation of the facility and wants to maintain the status quo. But Worsley can’t do that without deep cuts in other parks and recreation programs and facilities — an option that not only would negatively affect other parts of the community for the benefit of swimmers, but also displeases some members of council.
Not for the first time, Worsley is in an untenable position as a consequence of budget realities he tried to communicate four years ago.
We would sincerely love, as one recent letter writer strongly urged us, to write positive stories about the Columbus Aquatic Center — stories about something other than budget crunches and overworked administrators and Catch-22 dilemmas. Perceptions to the contrary, we’d much rather write about stands packed with spectators for major swim meets, about positive economic impacts, about the swim center’s strong and growing lure of visitors to this city.
For now, that seems like a long time, a lot of no-win decisions and a lot of hard-to-find dollars away.