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Can college pool stay above water?

Board plans review of financial report at Dec. 14 meeting
by: Jim Clark A group of women enjoy a water exercise class at Mt. Hood Community College’s Aquatic Center on Dec. 13.

Eleven years ago, Gresham resident Nelda Bonifacio, 71, had triple bypass surgery.

She's also got arthritis.

Yet she moves gracefully through the Learner Pool in the Aquatic Center at Mt. Hood Community College in a manner belying her age and health issues.

'It feels good,' she says, adding her doctor recently gave her the thumbs up health-wise.

'My blood work and everything was great,' she says, noting she participates in a water aerobics class twice a week.

'Most of us don't do it for recreation,' she says. 'There's a (health) reason.'

Louise Churchill, 83, has had back surgery and has been swimming at the center for 15 years. Had she not swum regularly, she says, she's pretty sure she would have slowed down considerably as she aged.

'I'm still walking,' she says with a bright smile.

Both women note they are taxpayers and also pay - albeit at a discounted rate - to swim at Mt. Hood's Aquatic Center.

'It's one of the most valuable community resources,' Churchill says.

Money woes

No one is looking to close the Aquatic Center, according to the college, which agrees that the community values the pool. In fact, the center is 'the largest provider of aquatic classes and swim lessons in our area,' according to a report Mt. Hood's board will review at its 6 p.m. meeting Wednesday, Dec. 14.

The report adds there were more than 137,000 'separate visits by campus and community members' to the center over the past year, although it is 'unknown how many individuals this represents.'

However, the 'Aquatic Center is not an essential part of the educational mission of Mt. Hood Community College,' the report states. Aquatic centers like the one at Mt. Hood 'have become increasingly difficult to operate at a profit throughout the country,' and the college is looking to reduce or eliminate its subsidy of the center.

Indeed, according to the report, Mt. Hood hasn't skimped on the center, spending $4.2 million since 2006 on improving it. The college renovated the center's 50-meter pool to the tune of more than $2.05 million, for example, and replaced siding and roofing and upgraded its energy systems.

'The rationale for making these investments was the opportunity to expand educational and recreational opportunities for the campus and the community, as well as continuing as a venue for local, regional and national aquatic competitions,' the report states.

However the center has failed to produce enough revenue to break even, the report states, and has been operating at a deficit. In 2009-10, the deficit was $752,006; in 2010-11, the center's deficit was $647,842.

'The Aquatic Center does cost more to operate than revenues collected from its operations,' says Brian Freeman, Mt. Hood board member. 'The same may be said of many programs run by (the college) including valuable educational programs such as nursing, music, welding, engineering, et cetera. Yet all of these programs provide essential services to our students and to the community. What the board must do is evaluate and decide what costs are appropriate in order to provide these needed services, given our limited budget.'

Who uses it?

During a long and sometimes bitter contract dispute between the college's teachers union and its board earlier this year, some teachers' advocates decried the college's funding of the center while it was cutting in other areas. Which begs the question - who is using the Aquatic Center?

The report answers with the following percentages on 'type of visit:'

• Swim teams practicing or holding competitive meets: 66 percent.

• Children taking lessons or swimming recreationally: 18 percent.

• Students and staff: 6 percent.

• Adults taking lessons or swimming recreationally (including seniors): 5 percent.

The remaining 5 percent of visits include those by the center's members and others.

The report adds that lessons taken by the community members generate between $160,000 and $180,000 in revenue per year.

What could change

The report offers a number of suggestions for reducing the center's costs, including raising certain fees and reducing personnel and energy costs.

Among the suggestions the report makes is more aggressive collection of payments from swim teams that use the center. Apparently, 'in the recent past, MHCC has not collected the payments or invoiced for the majority of the swim meets.'

When asked why this was the case, Freeman gave this answer:

'The board has been concerned about the operation and management of the Aquatic Center and expects the staff to provide answers to these questions in future reports.'