WATERVILLE — Mayor Nick Isgro says he doesn’t want to close the municipal pool, though some city officials have argued that turning down a $560,000 grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation could jeopardize its future.

Debate over the pool’s future came to a head this weekend after City Councilor Lauren Lessing, D-Ward 3, distributed fliers at the pool saying it was in danger of closing under a proposal from Isgro to cut the city budget, including up to $274,000 in city money budgeted for repairs to a slide pool that is part of the complex.

Isgro shut down her argument in a Facebook post Sunday morning, saying while he has questioned the use of the money for the slide repairs he doesn’t intend to close the pool.

“Councilor Lauren Lessing spent hours at the municipal pool complex handing out fliers stating that I was asking them to close the pool completely to the public,” Isgro said in the post. “While I am disappointed that Councilor Lessing chose to have no moral qualms about blatantly lying to her own fellow residents, I cannot say that I am surprised.”

The flier from Lessing says, “Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro has called our Alfond Municipal Pool ‘social welfare’ and a ‘consistent loser.’ He and school board member Julian Payne now propose CLOSING THIS FACILITY PERMANENTLY. ‘Kids can go find a lake to swim in,’ Payne sniped.”

In an email, Lessing confirmed Sunday she had distributed the fliers.

“I’m very glad to hear from friends this morning that the mayor, and presumably Julian Payne as well, are back-peddling away from their proposal to save on property taxes by eliminating municipal funding for the Alfond Municipal Pool — a move that would close the pool,” Lessing said.

“I was so shocked when they raised this proposal at the June 19 city council meeting that I took careful notes to capture their words. I think it’s important that residents of the neighborhood, the owners and employees of the Dairy Cone, and the many folks who enjoy the pool on hot summer weekends like this one know what they said, and that our pool is at risk!”

Debate over funding for the pool comes amidst a heated budget discussion that will be taken up by the council Tuesday night. Last month, the council unanimously approved a $41.9 million budget that includes an 8.3 percent tax increase.

Isgro has vetoed the budget and handed down a list of proposed changes that include re-directing or eliminating the $274,000 currently allocated to repair the slide pool; reduced raises for school employees; the elimination of new school district positions, some of which are federally mandated; and reductions to the paving and fire department budgets.

On Tuesday, the council will consider whether to override Isgro’s veto or look at some of his proposed changes, including whether to go ahead with the repairs for the slide pool.

In order for the city to receive a $560,000 grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation for the repairs, Waterville was required to pitch in some of its own money — up to $274,000 from an account set aside for the pool.

The council voted last week to award a bid for the project at $762,702, which means the city could end up contributing less than $274,000.

The project is slated as the first phase of a two-phase project that would later include about $1 million in repairs to the main pool and kiddie pools. Without the first phase repairs, the slide pool will have to permanently close, according to city officials.

“The question for this year is just confined to the slide,” said City Manager Mike Roy. “The rest of the pool could stay open for this summer even if we don’t do the work on the slides. They’re kind of separate from the rest of the pool.”

However, Roy said the main pool has not had repairs in 19 years and is in desperate need. He said the city has not heard from the Harold Alfond Foundation on a specific proposal, but is hopeful they would also contribute to those repairs.

A message left at the foundation Sunday was not immediately returned.

If the city turns down the grant this year, as the mayor has suggested, Roy said it could jeopardize future grant funding for the pool. At the same time, he said the repairs are not contingent on each other and fixes could be made to the main pool even if nothing is done with the slide pool.

“If we don’t do anything, I don’t think the pool will be operable in a couple of years,” Roy said. “Next year’s work is even more important. The concern I have is if we turn down their grant this year for the slide, what does that mean for next year?”

Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan also echoed those concerns Sunday, saying rejecting the Alfond grant for the slide pool “could be the beginning of the end” for the municipal pool.

“I don’t want to be too dramatic, but people who frequent the facility understand the slides are a huge draw,” Skehan said. “Without them we’re just a pool. I just don’t think summer camps and other programs would be busing in and visiting us as often without them.”

Isgro said in his budget veto the pool is a “facility that barely breaks even given the extremely low cost of tickets sold,” and during a June 19 council meeting referred to the pool as a “constant loser.”

“I think at some point we need to have a discussion about the cost of infrastructure,” he said at the time. “At what point are we building too much, doing too much when we could do with less for the people who live here?”

In an email Sunday, Isgro suggested raising ticket prices and appealing to philanthropy to keep the pool sustainable in the future.

Daily fees for using the pool are $4 cash or $5 credit card for children and $5 cash or $6 credit card for adults. For non-residents, the cost is $6 cash or $7 credit card for children and $9 cash or $10 credit card for adults.

“Recently a private citizen was able to fundraise and build a performing arts center at the high school that was cost free to the taxpayers,” Isgro said. “If we are asking this of our schools, then there’s no doubt we can have a pool that is self sustaining in ticket prices and accompanying appeals to philanthropy.

“Waterville residents have enjoyed a pool for years which is why the rest of us will be discussing its infrastructural sustainability rather than Councilor Lessing’s continued scare tactics and lack of ideas other than tax people out of their homes.”

He also posted a poll on Facebook suggesting Lessing recuse herself from Tuesday’s budget vote. Lessing, who recently supported a recall of the mayor over his social media posts, is planning to move to Iowa at the end of the month for a job at the University of Iowa.

“Is it ethical for Councilor Lauren Lessing — who is moving away and abandoning our community in the coming days — to vote to raise your property taxes and then skip town, leaving you with the bill?” Isgro asked in the poll.

Meanwhile, Lessing said she wanted clarity from the mayor and school board member Julian Payne “as to what they meant by statements like, ‘Kids can go find a lake to swim in.'”

At the June 19 meeting, Payne criticized spending for the pool, saying, “I have a serious problem with spending $274,000 on a pool that is used six weeks of the year in a service community that already provides many services. Kids have an opportunity to go to the Boys & Girls Club and camps where they can get subsidized camp time to swim at the lake.”

Payne on Sunday called Lessing’s flier a “negative, divisive hit piece” that only included his name because he supported Isgro through the recall effort. He also criticized her for using his personal email address as a point of contact.

“I’m not a council member and I have no vote on the pool,” Payne said. “Her statement is totally misleading. I was just putting it out there that there are other opportunities for kids to use. Kids love lakes and rivers and there’s nothing wrong with swimming in a lake or river.”

Questions about the budget and pool funding follow weeks of strained relations between councilors and the mayor, who has said those who supported his recall were part of an attack on the city led by “dark money funded outsiders.”

“If anyone asks, the ‘dark money’ I used to fund the flier was a five dollar bill I found in a coat pocket while I was packing,” Lessing said. “I suppose it had been in the dark for a while.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

filed under: