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Editorial: Is anything sadder than padlocked pools?

Swim time is almost over at Sacramento's public pools.

Only six of 13 city pools opened this summer, and they'll all be closed for the season by Labor Day. Next summer, only three pools are to open. In a city of 466,000, that's a disgrace even in these hard times.

City Hall needs all the help it can get to keep pools open. But by not asking loudly enough and by not making donations easier, the city is missing out on a potential lifeline.

Jonathan Rewers, chairman of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, says the city needs to do a better job of telling the community that public pools are a "vital service." They are also smart policy: If kids aren't frolicking in pools, they could be getting in trouble on the street.

This is a prime opportunity for a civic-minded corporation to make a sizable gift that would buy priceless good will. Some feelers have gone out, but with no success.

The city also ought to have a formal matching donation program. If a neighborhood association raises a significant sum – say at least half the $100,000 it costs to run a city pool for a year – the city should come up with the rest.

Rewers says the city needs to better publicize the donation programs that do exist.

Gifts to Share, the city's 26-year-old nonprofit partner, is the conduit through which residents, businesses and community groups can support parks and recreation, cultural, education and neighborhood improvement projects. More than $1.2 million went through it last year.

The Parks and Recreation Department also has a community sponsorship initiative. For instance, businesses can help sponsor the citywide swim championships, while individuals can pay for poor kids to get swim lessons, or just cover their $1 admission fee. But because layoffs put the initiative on hiatus, not a single dollar was raised this summer.

While raising big bucks is a daunting challenge for any community group, the experience of Catherine O'Brien suggests the city isn't making it any easier.

Southside Park pool is among the seven city pools that didn't open this summer and is to be closed again next summer. O'Brien, who moved to the neighborhood last year, came up with the idea of having donors buy tiles with images of their kids or pets and putting them on a wall at the pool. She also thought about holding an event at the pool, with music, food, wine and, of course, swimming.

When she approached the city in April, emails show that officials encouraged her. They pointed her to the biggest success story recently – the Glenn Hall pool. There, a local swim team pays its own way. To also offer public swim hours last summer, the River Park Neighborhood Association raised $20,000. (It also raised money for limited swim time this summer.)

O'Brien has fundraising experience, having coordinated an effort for a San Diego center for abused young women. So she figured $20,000 was doable.

But within days, after the department's budget was further along, O'Brien was told that the city didn't plan to put any money into Southside Park pool this summer. That meant she would have to raise more like $80,000 pronto – a full-time job, she says.

The city says that it needs to have the money for a full summer in hand by March or April so that there's enough time to find and train lifeguards.

"Unfortunately, we found all this out one hour after our Save Our Pool banner was printed," O'Brien told neighborhood association leaders in an email. "Sorry to have to report such very disappointing news."

She is discouraged by her experience. "It seemed really, really bureaucratic," she says.

Individual donations and corporate giving are not a panacea for the city parks budget crunch. But it could be a short-term fix for next summer, a bridge to a more permanent solution.

Rewers and other parks advocates are pushing for a citywide property tax assessment for parks maintenance, including pools, on the 2012 ballot. Residents would get to decide how important keeping up parks and keeping open pools is to them.

Some community groups are already willing to chip in. The city should do all it can to encourage that generosity.