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Middletown pool might not open, with funding spent on renovations; borough wants feedback

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Middletown borough might not open the municipal swimming pool on South Union Street at all in 2020, citing ongoing uncertainty over when social distancing restrictions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic will be eased or lifted.

Council does not plan to make a decision on whether to open the pool this year until council’s next scheduled meeting May 5. Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter suggested council hold off on making a final decision until then so word can get out to the public. This would give residents a chance to comment on the proposal before council takes action May 5.

However, council during its April 21 meeting received a recommendation from the pool aquatic director through Klinepeter that the pool would not be able to open until mid-summer. That is based on the director’s analysis of guidance from the federal government and from Gov. Tom Wolf.

At that point, “she does not believe it is going to be worthwhile opening this year financially,” Klinepeter said, adding that he agreed with her recommendation.

Another factor is that if the pool cannot be open until midsummer, it will be difficult for the borough to hire the high school and college students needed to staff the pool for that short period of time, Klinepeter added.

Councilor Dawn Knull, who works the closest with the pool and its staff, agreed with Klinepeter’s recommendation.

Knull proposed an alternative: that the borough take the money that council included in the 2020 budget for pool operations and instead use these funds for improvements to the pool to make sure the facility is in tip-top shape to open in 2021.

Knull listed a number of projects that need done at the pool, including sandblasting and a thorough repainting of the entire pool, making the pool more handicapped accessible, addressing repairs to the lifeguard stand and ladders, replacing toilets, and repairing or replacing picnic tables.

Knull’s proposal was enthusiastically supported by Council Vice President Ian Reddinger, who called it “an excellent idea. Use the whole summer to fix things up.”

Council President Angela Lloyd agreed, calling Knull’s proposal “a great idea.”

Council did approve a recommendation from Klinepeter to hire Seibert’s Inc. to sandblast the main pool and children’s pool to remove the old paint for $13,870.

The contract is covered by funds in the pool’s 2020 operating budget, and the proposal from Seibert’s was the lowest of three price quotes received, Klinepeter said.

The repainting would be done later by the borough’s public works crew.

The 2020 Middletown budget includes $182,000 in expenses for the swimming pool, an increase over $117,074 in the 2019 budget. The budget projects $118,200 in pool revenue for the year.

Borough officials and councilors have said in the past that the pool is not a money maker but a service the borough provides to residents. In most years the best that can be expected is that the pool will break even.

Knull told council the borough had not begun selling pool memberships for the 2020 season, so refunds are not necessary.

Knull told the Press & Journal in a follow-up phone interview that based upon the aquatic director’s analysis, the earliest the pool can open is in July. It doesn’t make financial sense to be open for that short a period of time.

“We have to pay people. A pool is not something where you can limit how many people can come in. You can’t just put 10 people in a pool. It will cost us more than that in staffing to do that,” Knull said.

“We believe the social distancing rules are going to prevent us from opening the pool in a safe manner until later into the season, which raises concerns regarding increased liability and financial issues,” Klinepeter told the Press & Journal in an email after the council meeting.

One day after council’s April 21 discussion regarding keeping the pool closed for 2020, Wolf unveiled his plan for reopening parts of the state beginning May 8.

However, the governor’s plan looks to first reopen areas in the north-central and northwest regions of Pennsylvania. The guidance provides no specific information as to when restrictions in the Middletown area are to be lifted.

Knull said that in her view, the information in Wolf’s plan makes no difference regarding council’s consideration of not opening the pool in 2020.

The state has not put out any specific guidance about the opening of municipal swimming pools in 2020, Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle told the Press & Journal.

“As we prepare for the upcoming seasons, the administration will continue to examine the impact of all seasonal businesses, including recreation sites like pools, but utilizing the latest data and modeling and with a priority on public health and safety and mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” Wardle said.

If council does decide to keep the municipal swimming pool closed for 2020, that would leave Middletown Swim Club on North Union Street as the only option for people and families who do not have a swimming pool of their own.

The swim club plans to open on June 13, according to the club’s website and an email that was sent to club members by the club board of directors on April 15.

That June 13 date is not set in stone, according to the email. The opening date could be delayed, or moved up, depending upon changes in the COVID-19 situation.

“Please know that MSC (Middletown Swim Club) as an organization is watching the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for public safety,” the email says. “We are also monitoring recommendations from our local, state and federal health organizations. Kindly keep in mind that if social distancing standards run beyond the school year, we will have to adjust the timeline accordingly.”

“While your Board of Directors have diverse backgrounds, none of us can see into the future. Conversely, if we find ourselves in a position where we can safely open before the above timetable, we will do so and relay the message to you via email. Always know that if we cannot open this season, your dues would be refunded. And this would be a last resort that would break our hearts.”

The email also notes that while membership dues are typically returned to the club by May 1, that deadline has been extended to June 1 to reflect “the crippling effect”  the pandemic has caused financially.

“We are also empathetic to those affected by the downward trajectory of the economy. If you find yourself struggling financially, please contact the club via email at middletownpaswimclub@gmail.com to set up a payment plan for your membership dues. We are willing to work individually with you during difficult times.”

Board President Jan Webb told the Press & Journal on Friday that she has contacted Wolf’s office, seeking further “clarification and understanding” regarding the guidelines he put out Wednesday.

“That will help us to guide and understand where we fit into the reopening model, to help us to understand a time line we can adjust,” Webb said.

“Our hope is it will be sooner but it could be later than what we laid out,” she said of the club’s proposed June 13 opening. “I want to be able to say this is exactly what we are doing but this is bigger than me and it is bigger than all of us, so we have to kind of play it by ear.”

If council decides not to open the Middletown swimming pool, Webb said the Swim Club would welcome new members.

Webb said anyone with questions about the club and its rates can email the club at middletownpaswimclub@gmail.com.