In few communities of Columbia's size could the issue of swimming pools become a political hot potato.
But in the planned city of 80,000 with 21 outdoor pools and two more in the works, pool rates and affordability, amenities, attendance, management and financial performance are important and often contentious issues.
The Columbia Council has formed a Swimming Pool Task Force to take a comprehensive look at city pools, partly as a result of flaps earlier this year over proposals to restrict use of pools with -- low attendance to adults or teen-agers.
The task force also will look at rates for Columbia residents compared with those for nonresidents and annual operating losses of about $1.5 million, including interest and depreciation.
"A lot of us agree that's an extreme amount of loss," said member John McGuinn. "If we can't eliminate that loss, what can we do to cut it down?"
The panel is charged with promoting access to pools while ensuring that rates and the subsidy from the annual 73-cent property lien on Columbia residents are reasonable.
Columbia officials risk residents' ire by suggesting a change in the nature of a "neighborhood pool."
They learned that lesson earlier this year when proposals to restrict use of several pools to certain groups -- an effort to boost attendance -- stirred residents who believed they were being ignored.
The task force has about 15 members, some of whom represent organizations such as Columbia Association's aquatics advisory
committee and the Columbia Clippers youth swim club.
Councilman and task force chairman Roy T. Lyons asked members to look beyond their personal interests.
"Our success will be measured in terms of how well our recommended solutions serve Columbia," he wrote.
The task force plans to report its findings and recommendations in November to the council, which sets policy for the Columbia Association -- the nonprofit agency that operates city recreational facilities -- and approves an annual budget.
The panel has various factions to consider.
PD Some say that pools should be free to Columbia residents, who fi
nance the facilities through the annual property charge; others advocate widening the disparity in rates between Columbia residents and nonresidents.
"There are whole categories of people who don't use the pools because they can't afford it," said Sylvia Erber, a senior citizen and Hickory Ridge village resident.
Some say that every Columbia neighborhood should have a pool and that operating losses subsidized through the property charge are acceptable; others say the city now has too many pools that are draining resources, including some that are sparingly used, and that no more should be built.
"The one thing we don't want to do in the final report is apologize for the way things are," said Mr. Lyons. "If something can't be changed, fine. But if there should be changes and we have a concrete recommendation, that should be our objective."
Ideas discussed at a recent meeting ranged from banning ice cream trucks that take away from snack bar sales to sanitary requirements for babies to improving pools by adding amenities such as a snack bar or volleyball court. Other ideas included designating exclusive time for certain groups, such as bridge players and teen-agers, and reducing vandalism.