Due to financial pressures exacerbated by COVID-19, customers may have to wait another year to enjoy the indoor pool at the Le Sueur Community Center.
At the Nov. 9 Le Sueur City Council meeting, city staff gave councilors an update on the financial status of the community center and recommended that the indoor pool be closed throughout 2021. The gap year is intended to allow staff time to reevaluate the operational costs of the pool.
The indoor pool has been closed since March 16 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but even as the rest of the community center opened on Sept. 1, the indoor pool’s doors have remained shuttered. That’s because it’s one of the most expensive facilities for the city to operate in the community center, City Administrator Jasper Kruggel said on Monday.
Just 17% of the $252,000 it costs to operate the pool is covered by customers. For every patron that uses the pool, the city receives $16.90, but it costs $101 to keep the pool operational for every use.
The remaining costs are covered by taxpayers, but that comes at a steep price. To operate the pool for nine months of the year in 2021, Kruggel projected the city’s proposed levy would need to increase by 5%. For the median $206,000 household in Le Sueur, the levy increase would cost $6.25 per month or $75 a year.
One of the biggest problems facing the pool is that it doesn’t have a wide customer base. The indoor pool was used nearly 2,500 times in 2019, but 2,000 of those uses were made up by just 20 unique customers.
Attracting new patrons has been a challenge for the city. The pool itself is too small to be used for official swim tournaments, so there hasn’t been interest from swim teams at the local school district nor by youth groups.
The expenses of operating the pool, and the community center as a whole, has only worsened with COVID-19. Revenues plummeted this year and membership payments were canceled when the community center closed, leaving the city with a $900,000 deficit at the end of the year. City staff expect to reduce the deficit down to pre-pandemic levels at $545,000 with federal aid from the CARES Act, but there are still significant financial risks.
The coronavirus remains a wild card. If the pandemic continues to worsen, the city may be forced to shut down the community center again.
“One of the biggest threats that we have right now is the potential closing of the facility due to COVID-19 ramping up and numbers increasing over the last week or two,” said Kruggel.
Memberships have also fallen off. Currently, the community center has 142 non-senior membership packages active and 121 senior packages active. Pre-COVID, non-senior membership levels stood at 359 patrons and 246 senior memberships.
However, Kruggel was optimistic about these numbers. The city administrator said membership levels were on pace to meet the city’s goal of a 50% rejoining rate by the end of the year. Membership levels are currently at 43%, but Kruggel believed that colder weather and new membership drives would bring in new customers in the coming months.
The 2021 gap year proposed by city staff would keep operations costs down and allow time for the community center to rethink their payment model for the indoor pool. The city could look at a variety of potential solutions to cut costs or raise revenues. One idea proposed by the council could be to lengthen the pool so school and youth swim teams could use it for competitions, but the feasibility of such a proposal is still unknown.
The issue of closing the pool will be looked at more closely by the council on Nov. 23 during the proposed budget review and the final budget consideration on Dec. 14. The council will also be able to review options to open the pool in 2021.
“It’s a great recreational tool to have, especially in the winters in Minnesota,” said Councilor Shawn Kirby. “It would be tough to close it. I’m looking at these numbers and it’s kind of alarming, but I’m hoping there is some way we can generate more revenue and keep it open of course.”
There were some brighter spots during the community center update. The city administrator and community center head Allison Watkins reported that new software is allowing staff to produce more complete data on the community center’s finances. It’s also letting staff ensure that customers benefit from just one membership discount.
“In the past people have gotten multiple discounts and it was a problem with the software system and how the membership packages were built previously,” said Watkins. “That’s all taken care of now. If a member has a discount it is noted in the rec software with a tag … The rec software is working the way we wanted to to work, putting out numbers we couldn’t see previously. It will only get better from this point on.”