City Hall was expected to backtrack Friday following a public outcry about a sharp fee increase at Sarnia’s only outdoor public swimming pool.
The cost of a swim session at Tecumseh Pool increased to $5 this year, after being $2 prior to the pandemic, and free the past two years.
The 150% increase has drawn criticism on social media and at City Hall, where complaints started piling up this week. The pool, supported by the late philanthropist Norma Cox as part of the Norma Cox Youth Centre, is a summer haven for low-income families.
The move followed a new operating agreement signed recently with the YMCA and was not publicly announced.
“There’s definitely a lot of people that are disappointed,” said Crystal Bisson Wrightson, who added the pool has been a lifesaver for her three children. All three suffer chronic pain stemming from a connective tissue disorder that rules out most sports, except swimming.
“I used to pile them in the van and go for a family swim for $8. Now I can’t even get two in for that price,” she said.
“There is not a lot in Sarnia for youth to do, especially youth without the financial means to go to movies, shopping, participate in day camps, go bowling, etc.”
In an email obtained by The Journal on Thursday, city CAO Chris Carter advised Sarnia council he planned to direct staff to suspend the new $5 admission fee at Tecumseh Pool.
Sarnia handed over operation of the facility – including swim lessons, aquatic classes and open swims – to the YMCA of Southwestern Ontario this year as a pilot project.
The agreement came after the Canadian Red Cross announced it would no longer offer its aquatics programming and lifeguard training.
“This meant the historical Red Cross swim lesson programming offered by the City of Sarnia Lifeguards can no longer be offered, and new programming would need to be developed and adopted through the support of an alternate agency,” city staff said in a May report, noting Sarnia typically spends $135,000 on lifeguards at the pool.
The staff report did not cite a pool fee increase.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said Thursday he and council were not aware of the 150% hike for open swim admissions implemented by the YMCA.
“I am concerned about the size of that fee… it did come as a surprise,” he said.
In an email to council, community services general manager Stacey Forfar said that without the YMCA partnership the city couldn’t have offered swimming lessons and aquatic programming this summer. The programming offered at Tecumseh Pool is the same as that offered at the YMCA in Sarnia.
Paul Skuza, centre manager at the YMCA Sarnia-Lambton Jerry McCaw Family Centre, said city officials were aware of the fee increase.
“A big team of people worked on this. It wasn’t like we pulled the number out of thin air,” he told The Journal. “It was agreed upon… with the city approving the charges.”
Skuza said he’s hearing from concerned residents and is listening.
“I just want to go on record and say we do care about the wellbeing of the community, and of course we have to operate as a business to make sure we’re sustainable, to ensure we can still run all these great quality programs and cover costs,” he said.
“We have some communication that maybe wasn’t shared as well as it could have been with everybody, because I think there’s some assumptions being made.
“Its not like we’re laughing all the way to the bank when we set our fees,” he added. “We’re trying to be as fair as possible and make sure that all people can come out in some way or another.”
Sarnia and YMCA officials stressed access to the newly renovated splash pad at Tecumseh is free.
As well, a free two-hour pool swim is offered on Saturdays and Sundays, sponsored by Noelle’s Gift and the YMCA. The Y also has subsidy programs available for those who qualify.
But residents say the cost of swimming is now out of reach for many families.
“If you assume $20 per day for a family of four, times ten weeks of summer, you’re looking at $1,400. May as well get a Riding Club membership and have access to the beach, gym, tennis, as well,” said resident Allison Kenny, noting she reached out to every member of council this week with her concerns. “Essentially what has happened is, the children who were on the mind of Norma Cox when she made her very generous donations to the pool are no longer able to access its services on a regular basis.”