Robert Collier lives in North Berkeley and is co-chair of the Berkeley Pools Campaign. Following Tuesday’s City Council decision to approve a June ballot measure on pools, he wrote this commentary for Berkeleyside:

As the worsening California fiscal crisis finally starts to hit home in Berkeley, city voters will have the chance to defend our quality of life in a very specific, tangible way – by saving the city’s municipal swimming pools.

Last Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a $21.3 million ballot measure for the June 8 primary election ballot. The measure would rehab and modernize the three outdoor pools at King Park, Willard Park and West Campus and would build a new indoor Warm Pool at West Campus. It also would provide a fixed stream of $900,000 annually in extra operating funds to protect programs and hours at the new and improved pools.

With two of Berkeley’s four pools scheduled to close permanently in the next year and budget cuts endangering the remaining hours and programs, it’s a now or never choice.

The ballot measure is the result of a years-long effort by Berkeley swimmers, parents and children to save their beloved yet tattered pools. As co-chair of the Berkeley Pools Campaign, which is leading the campaign to pass the measure, I’m one of many who believe this issue is much more than just a matter of swimming. The pools provide a lifeline for all ages and walks of life, from six-month-old babies to the elderly and handicapped. From swim lessons to lap swimming, family swim, physical therapy, and the Barracudas and Masters teams, the pools are a low-cost community resource for thousands of Berkeley residents.

On a summer day, there’s no place more full of laughter than Willard or West Campus pools, with their remarkably multi-ethnic mix of kids from all over South and West Berkeley. Or any morning before dawn, there’s no place busier than the steaming waters of King Pool as scores of Masters swimmers train for their next meet. And every day at the Warm Pool, disabled adults and kids roll their wheelchairs or hobble awkwardly up to the edge, then transform into graceful swimmers once they hit the water.

But the pools also are a study in deferred maintenance and long-term decay. All are near or past the end of their natural lives. The three outdoor pools at King, Willard and West Campus were built in the mid-1960s. They are springing leaks, their pumps and heaters are inefficient, and their locker rooms are in poor shape. Willard is scheduled for permanent closure in July 2010 because of budget cuts. The 92-degree Warm Pool, which serves seniors, adults in rehab, disabled people of all ages, and parents with toddlers, will lose its location at Berkeley High School’s decrepit Old Gym when that building is demolished in 2011 and replaced by new classrooms and athletic facilities for students.

In particular, the Warm Pool says volumes about Berkeley’s unique values and identity. For the past two decades, the Warm Pool has been a hidden gem, one of the largest, best pools for the elderly and disabled in the United States. Unlike most cities that have recreation systems almost exclusively for the able-bodied, Berkeley views the elderly, disabled and people in rehab as having the same rights to recreation as all others. In fact, Berkeley has a proud record as the birthplace and nexus of the U.S. disablity rights movement. The Ed Roberts Campus, a multi-service center for the disabled that is under construction next to Ashby BART station, is scheduled to open in April, and it will serve as a one-stop headquarters for disability rights. A new Warm Pool would be a fitting complement to the Ed Roberts Campus.

Now, with Berkeley High planning to evict the Warm Pool, some anti-tax conservatives have tried to use the issue as a battering ram to further their political battle against the School District. Separately, some architectural preservationists have raised legitimate concerns about the possibility of saving the landmarked Old Gym. But the overwhelming majority of Warm Pool users and other Berkeley swimmers have refused to get sucked into a conflict that is ultimately against the city’s schoolchildren. The School District owns the other pools sites (King, Willard and West Campus) and swimmers believe it should be treated as an ally, not an enemy.

Some people also argue that now is not the time to be increasing the city’s tax burden. But to blame the current recession gets the problem exactly backward. Now more than ever, there is no alternative. With two pools closing and the city going off a budgetary cliff, the ballot measure is the only way to save this vital part of our community. The ballot measure would cost about $58 per year for the average Berkeley home, calculated on the basis of a 1,900 square foot house. For many Berkeleyites, it’s a fair deal. In a public opinion survey conducted in January by David Binder Associates of 400 likely Berkeley voters, the pools ballot measure was favored by 67 percent, exactly the two-thirds requirement for victory.

Just like our predecessors did when they built the pools decades ago, it’s our turn to pay for a long-term investment in health, recreation and quality of life for ourselves, our families, and several more generations of Berkeley residents to come. It’s a legacy in which we, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to take great pride.

Photos courtesy the Berkeley Pools Campaign

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