News - March 2, 2011

Menlo Park: Private swim teams fight over use of public pools

• History of conflict affects current negotiations as City Council gets contract.

by Sandy Brundage

Years of tension boiled over during the past few months as Menlo Park began negotiating a fresh five-year contract with Team Sheeper to run the city's $6.8 million, publicly funded Burgess aquatics center along with Belle Haven's pool. While the council could approve the contract on Tuesday night, March 1, the dissension over pool access between SOLO, a nonprofit competitive youth swimming club, and Team Sheeper, a for-profit business, has yet to simmer down.

As of Feb. 24, the proposed contract requires Team Sheeper to pay $3,000 a month to lease the Burgess pools; be responsible for all operating costs; and operate the Belle Haven pools for at least three months a year. City staff estimated that would save Menlo Park $540,000 to $640,000 a year, not counting the additional $36,000 in revenue from the rent payment.

The latest terms raise SOLO's total lane hours from 45 to 80 per week from September to May during the late afternoon by starting its practice a half-hour earlier — and maintain some practice space at Burgess instead of shipping SOLO off to Belle Haven during the summer.

However, adding the time as half-hour blocks won't help the club, according to SOLO board president Steve Zanolli, who said the SOLO swimmers practice in hour-and-a-half to two-hour blocks. "It's like giving us brand-new tires on a car that doesn't run," he said. "While we are happy with the additional two lanes, the rest is just misdirection."

He also challenged the notion of labeling SOLO as a subsidized program, saying other programs at the pool, such as Aqua-Fit, also don't pay the $16-per-lane-hour breakeven cost. Under the new contract, SOLO would pay $8 per lane hour for the first 45 hours, then $16 for all remaining hours. If Team Sheeper's contract is renewed after five years, SOLO would pay at least $16 per lane hour for all its time in the pools.

No victory laps

Of course, giving more time to one group means giving less to another. Lap swimmers will lose 35 lane hours during the late afternoon weekdays under the proposed contract, along with 14 hours on weekends.

How many people that impacts, however, is hard to say. When asked for the average number of lap swimmers from 3:30 to 5 p.m. during the week, Tim Sheeper, owner of Team Sheeper, declined to answer, saying, "Whatever number I say is wrong."

The Almanac conducted an informal survey of several lap swimmers, and found perceptions split between "rarely need to share a lane during the late afternoon" to "four or more swimmers sharing a lane" during warm weather months.

"It's more challenging when it's not just your programming, and your philosophy and vision," Mr. Sheeper said. "We have a lot more people to listen to, like moms, adults, seniors, the city, and so on. We have never been able to satisfy SOLO within the limits of our vision."

Pay to go away

The acrimony between the clubs started almost as soon as Mr. Sheeper took over operating the Burgess pools. Five years ago he announced that Burgess didn't have enough room to give SOLO the number of lane hours promised under the terms of Team Sheeper's lease with the city, an obligation inherited from the days the city of Menlo Park ran the pool.

In a letter to former SOLO president Chris Hinshaw, Mr. Sheeper wrote:

"Due to pool conflicts, the remaining hours due in the obligation will not be available for use." Team Sheeper said it would instead pay SOLO for those hours — a total of 1,647, about 75 percent of the pool time promised to SOLO — at a rate of $2.74 per hour.

It was a matter of economics, Mr. Sheeper said. Another community group, PASA, was willing to pay more than SOLO for pool time. "It made much more sense," he explained, but said at that point he became aware of the charged politics surrounding the situation and the city's lack of support for the buy-out, and withdrew the offer.

$20,000 versus $3,000 rent

Money continued to be an issue during current negotiations as well. When SOLO bid against Team Sheeper for the new pool contract, the group offered to pay $20,000 rent to the city each month. The city's decision to instead accept $3,000 from Team Sheeper raised questions about how thoroughly the finances were analyzed, although rent was only one of 13 criteria used to evaluate each proposal.

The city concluded that SOLO couldn't afford the monthly payments. But Mr. Zanolli of SOLO said the city never asked whether SOLO members could personally guarantee the $20,000 per month it offered to operate the pool.

According to Community Services Director Cherise Brandell, the city did ask, and SOLO never provided the guarantees in writing.

As with much of the controversy, who's right depends on where they're standing: City staff did ask for guarantees — but in February, two months after announcing that Team Sheeper should be awarded the contract.

"We said, 'that ship has sailed," Mr. Zanolli said. The club saw no point to identifying its backers when the contract had been awarded; had the city asked before making that decision, SOLO would've provided those guarantees in writing, according to Mr. Zanolli.

Back in the water

The noise from the pool fight obscures the underlying perception that most pool users are content with the way Mr. Sheeper runs the Burgess facility. "What gets missed is what's going well," he said.


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