School kids living in the Shellharbour City Council area will be given free access to three public swimming pools this Christmas.
Shellharbour councillors voted in favour of a two-week “summer holiday free pool pass” on Tuesday night.
The passes will give children aged under 16 free entry to three chlorinated swimming centres – at Albion Park, Oak Flats and Warilla – provided they are supervised by an adult and adhere to pool rules.
Children aged 16 to 18 must show their secondary school ID. Under the plan, observers won’t be charged a fee unless they swim.
Councillors were asked to consider two options for the passes – a two-week “promotional” pass between December 22 and January 4 (a relatively quiet period at the pools), or a full five-week pass (to January 28).
The two-week passes would cost council about $9200, while the financial implication of the full period passes was estimated at $65,200, a report to Monday night’s meeting said.
The significant difference in cost was due to extra staff being required during the longer period, the council said. There were also a number of other activities involving children during the five-week period, such as open days and learn-to-swim programs, meaning refunds would need to be considered.
Councillor John Murray called for the adoption of a two-week “promotional pilot project”.
Cr Murray asked that data be collected and analysed by the council’s aquatics facility working party “as part of their wider considerations on the best ways to manage our facilities and provide access for any disadvantaged sections of the community”.
“While I’m mindful there are some people in our community that could use assistance … and we should provide something to address that, I don’t think the answer’s a blanket free pass,” he said.
“I think that it’s a targeted assistance to them and the fees need to remain in place for the wider community.”
The two-week trial was supported by Cr Rob Petreski, who cited the financial implications to council of allowing fee-free access.
“If we go the full six weeks, the costs would be about $65,000 to council, if we go the two-week trial period its down to about $9500,” Cr Petreski said.
“I’m mindful and I’d like to be a responsible council in terms of budget and fiscal management.
“I would not like put a hole in our budget, not that I think that that would sink us but I think it’s still important to be fiscally responsible.”
Cr Petreski told the meeting he was a single father and taking his kids to the pool cost $8 a day.
“We have quite a few suburbs of a lower socioeconomic level … and the pools, although [they] aren’t expensive, I don’t think, they can rack up a cost,” he said.
Prior to 2010, the council’s pools were fee-free. In 2018/19, general admission costs $4 for adults, $2 for concession and $8 for a family. Spectators and children under school age are admitted for free. Annual, summer, 25-swim and 10-swim passes are also available.
Figures provided to councillors showed the Albion Park pool was the most popular among kids last summer, with 6040 child concession entry fees paid during the 2017/18 school holidays, followed by Warilla (5443) and Oak Flats (2627).
The figures don’t include children visiting on family or season passes, or with swimming clubs or learn-to-swim programs.
Greens councillor Peter Moran urged his colleagues to adopt the full period passes.
“We’re talking here about a difference between the two options of some $50K,” Cr Moran said.
“I think that there are a couple of items in the business paper for later on this evening where sums multiple times that amount are being spent in other ways, unbudgeted sums.”
Mayor Marianne Saliba voiced her concern about lifeguards being used as babysitters.
“I remember a time when there were no fees attached to the pools and I remember very vividly some of the problems that we had during that time,” Cr Saliba said.
“We had situations where kids would come with their teenage brother or sister … and then the older one would disappear and the kids would run amok
“We had situations with kids defecating in the pool and the pool being shut down for at least 24 hours until it was cleaned out.
“We had very poor behaviour … where our staff were spending time as babysitters as opposed to lifeguards.”
Cr Saliba was supportive of the free pool pass pilot program.
“I’m happy to support the two weeks, at this stage, I’m happy to gather the data,” she said.
“But I do think that there needs to be consideration if there is a way of supporting the most-disadvantaged and the most-needy in our community, rather than making our pools free for all.
“Because I don’t think we want to go back to the bad old days when we are running at a loss with the assets of council.”