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Eisenschmidt Pool, built in 1939, has never paid the city of St. Helens for water due to 'gentleman's agreement'

DARRYL SWAN - Eisenschmidt Pool was built as a Works Progress Administration project in 1939. Pool officials have never paid the city for water, which some say was the city's contribution to ensure public safety and reduce the occurrence of swimming in the Columbia River. Eisenschmidt Pool in St. Helens has been around since 1939, according to information on the pool district's website. For the past 79 years, pool officials have not paid the city of St. Helens a single drop of money for its water-use needs.

That could soon change, however, as the city has floated its intent to impose a $25,000 annual water-use fee on the pool.

"Unfortunately, the way we run, I see myself having to pass that on," said Anne Scholz, Eisenschmidt Pool's general manager. "I don't want to do that. I've always — in my 15 years here — I've always tried to keep my rates low. That's what the community needs, and I want to do what the community needs."

Pool officials noted the water-use fee on top of other added expenses, such as minimum wage hikes and sick leave pay that prompted an earlier rate increase, could lead to even higher rates and less affordability for low-income families.

The city in February corresponded with pool officials on three items. In addition to the water-use fee, the city asked if the pool's board — the governing body for the Greater St. Helens Parks and Recreation District, which is not associated with city parks — would change its name, and inquired if the pool board still had interest in obtaining the city's Civic Pride Park, a property adjacent to the pool.

The St. Helens City Council is asking for the name change as it pursues an agreement with the St. Helens School District to offer more parks and recreational opportunities in the city. Details of the partnership are unclear.

What is clear, however, is that St. Helens city councilors believe the Greater St. Helens Parks and Recreation District's name is confusing to taxpayers and clashes with its park goals, and they want it changed.

"Is Eisenschmidt Pool a park?" Councilor Doug Morten asked at a City Council work session Wednesday, April 4. "I think it's an ethics issue because it's confusing to voters."

The city has offered to pay for any expenses associated with the pool district name change.

Though the water-use fee appeared to be a done deal earlier in the week, the council stated its willingness to continue negotiations with the pool board following discussion Wednesday.

City Finance Manager Matt Brown said the February notice sent to the pool district was the result of a broader effort by the city to examine utilities.

Brown said there were other properties not paying for water, though those were still under construction. Eisenschmidt Pool was the only operating entity on the list not paying for water service, he said. Notably, however, the St. Helens Senior Center is billed for water, but receives a donation from the city to offset the expense.

"The arguments that I tried to come up with for not billing the pool district ... I couldn't come up with any. I see them as the same as the school or fire district. I see them on the same plateau," Brown said. "Why would I not be charging Eisenschmidt Pool?"

Brown initially said seeking the pool district's name change and the water-use fee were unrelated, though discussion at the Wednesday work session signaled the councilors were seeking a quid pro quo with the pool district.

Eisenschmidt Pool was built during the Great Depression as a Works Progress Administration project. The WPA, formed out of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, used federal dollars on projects nationally to stimulate the economy.

The reason the pool has never been charged for water, explains Christine Eisenschmidt in a March 11 letter forwarded to the city by the pool district, is because of a "gentleman's agreement" that's been in place since the pool's inception.

"In its almost 79 years the City has never charged the pool for water," writes Eisenschmidt, who served as former chair of the Eisenschmidt Pool Patrons Committee and Pool and Rec 1990, the latter of which worked to establish the Greater St. Helens Parks and Recreation District. "Unfortunately, those unaware of this history might think that the city has made an oversight, or that the operation of the pool is something to exploit."

Eisenschmidt explains in her letter that three people drowned in the St. Helens stretch of the Columbia River the prior summer, prompting the community to apply to the WPA for pool construction. In 1985, when the St. Helens School District shuttered the pool due to budget cuts, the community came together to revive it.

"Over time, some people have forgotten this, some have never been aware," she wrote. "It is important to keep in mind that it is a public safety issue to ensure that the pool remains accessible and affordable to all members of our community."

Eisenschmidt Pool is one of only eight remaining WPA-constructed pools, according to its website.