INFRASTRUCTURE AND EXPENSES
Well, we got through “taxes” without it seeming like a graduate-level Accounting class! Bear with me as I attempt to make this section just as readable.
Fact: When you own your property, you own all of the problems!
Pools hold water...lots of it. And water, arguably, can be one of the most destructive forces in nature.
Pools are made of cement. Cement cracks, breaks and leaks. Outdoor pools in Western Pennsylvania do not exactly weather graciously! Over the past seven seasons, GHC has spent about $3,000 each year in paint, cement, caulking and related supplies to patch, repair and paint the pool. In the leaner years, the money for this pre-season preparation was donated. For the past four seasons, the club was able to afford to foot the bill as part of our budget!
Patching and painting the pool (especially with the deep royal blue color we use at GHC) has two key benefits:
Pumps and filtration systems are mechanical. And just like this Pool President, these systems are over 50-years old. They break, they fail, they make strange noises, they are high maintenance, and they certainly aren’t cheap…again, just like this Pool President. Most private pools will tell you that they are one “pump-room failure away from closing…for the season, and possibly for good. And for a long time, GHC was in the same position. It’s fair to say we are not quite out of that area of the woods yet, but over the past several years, we have strategically invested in the maintenance and repairs needed to keep us going.
A new pump (impeller) will be needed in the next few years at a cost of around $10K. But it is important to keep an eye on “the little things” like replacing the rusty metal pipes with PVC pipes when possible and replacing rusted/corroded bolts with new stainless bolts. There are lots of bolts in a pump-room…typically 8 per fitting, and usually 30+ fittings. A bolt kit runs about $250…you do the math.
10-acres of land…beautiful property, if I say so myself, requires landscaping and upkeep. Dead trees either fall or need to be cut down. Fallen trees need to be cut up. Grass needs to be cut. Bushes need to be trimmed. You get the idea. Trees are expensive to cut down, and dangerous for volunteers to do. As far as grass cutting goes, our insurance company prefers that we use a professional, bonded landscaper to cut the grass instead of Lifeguards and volunteers who might find themselves missing a toe or two!
Fortunately, our Amusement Park does not have any rides to maintain, but we do have ladders, lifeguard stands, a diving board, dive stands, fencing, pavilions, play ground equipment, a shed, picnic tables and chairs! Whew, did I forget anything?
2,500 square feet of Lodge space. Well, during one of our re-assessment hearings, I did invite the hearing officer to our “Lodge” free of charge, to host a party of however many friends he could actually fit in our “Lodge”…he was not amused (pun intended). So our building boasts two restrooms, each with a few toilets, sinks and a working shower. It also houses our concession stand complete with a handful of refrigerators and freezers, some microwaves, a bunch of shelves and a few other gadgets that allow us to sell “fun food” to our members and guests, while staying compliant with the Health Department regulations.
Have I mentioned that the expense to pave a parking lot the size of GHC rivals that of the cost of a few cars to park on it?
Every pool must assess and prioritize its maintenance needs. Safety is the #1 concern. If something is broken and is a safety risk, we must fix it…or close (until it is fixed).
Fact: Allegheny County Health Department has the strictest regulations for public bathing places in the country.
Man, I really wanted to cite that last fact, but I could not find anything online that actually said that. However, in my Certified Pool Operator (CPO) courses, my instructors have echoed this sentiment. I have heard it from the American Red Cross. I have heard it from many other pool operators. So it must be fact, right? Regardless, Allegheny County does set the bar high for safety for swimming pools and food service…and that is a good thing. It can also be an expensive thing. That’s not a complaint…just a thing. So County and State Regulations and Inspections are #2, and since they go hand-in-hand with safety, I have no problem putting them in second place. If the two were a horse race, it would be photo-finish.
We are a membership pool. We exist to serve our members. So, things that are broken that create an inconvenience to our members are #3. That’s tough to argue.
Also, we want our pool to look appealing, so things that are eye-sores are #4 on the priority list.
Finally, “nice to haves” and “luxury items” can be given a #5 slot, but most pools have very little, if any, “disposable income” to spend that far down the list.
In a Trib Live article from July 21, 2011 [link], they reference Penn Aqua, which used to exist on Lynnwood Drive in Penn Hills, I pulled the following quotes:
The Penn Aqua Club pool's condition today is a far cry from its heyday, said former board member George Steffey of Leetsdale.
Penn Hills Principal Planner Chris Blackwell said private swim clubs whose properties fall into disrepair face an uphill battle, financially.
"When you have a property that starts deteriorating, you can reach a point where, even if you get a new organization in there, you have to do demolition work and it can get very costly," he said.
In other words, it is extremely important to make sure that things do not deteriorate beyond disrepair!
You will notice that snuck “insurance” into the landscaping rant above. Assuming the other clubs are like GHC, pools do not have just one policy, rather something like seven different policies, each one covering something different but specific to operating a pool. As long as private pools remain private, they have an opportunity to manage risk better than public pools. With the ability to manage risk, the insurance premiums are a bit more manageable. However, many underwriters are exiting the swimming pool space, making it tougher to find good policies at affordable rates. Having a good broker, operating a safe environment, maintaining the property and passing inspections are all critical elements. Falling behind on loans and taxes can hurt the organization’s ability to obtain a good policy at an affordable rate. So, you can see how everything starts to weave together, making it important to not focus on just one thing!
Utilities such as water, electricity and gas also contribute to expenses. These expenses tend to be exponentially higher in the summer months, for obvious reasons, and manageable in the offseason. Having a strong membership and a good fundraising program helps to keep the bills paid all-year round. Water and electricity are a must. At GHC we have an electric water heater in our Lodge. Our Amusement Park, I mean pool is not heated…yet. We had a heater many years ago, but as noted above…old mechanical things break easily. And when it broke, the club was not in a position to invest in a new heating system for the pool. Brand new, a pool heater would cost $15K-20K, plus the cost to run it (propane or natural gas).
For the past few years, we have been looking for an affordable pool heater in good working condition. The pool really only needs a heater in the first and last few weeks of the season. The sun tends to do its job between mid-June and mid-August. This has been the most popular request from our members (and prospective members) in my seven years as president).
But the bigger question is, “Where does a pool heater fall on the priority list?” I do not believe there is an argument to include it in either top two categories. So, where in the #3, #4 and #5 range should it land? That would be a great debate for the politicians…but wait, we do not discuss politics at the pool…more to come on that topic!
Chemicals…to be honest, I really do not feel like writing a long paragraph on chemicals. But let’s just say, chlorine and the various chemicals required to keep our water crystal clear and bacteria free are expensive. In fact, the cost of chemicals has doubled and will approach triple from just 5-years ago. In the famous words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Finally, while GHC and most other pools are run by volunteers (more on that later), lifeguards generally do not work for free. This may be the next pain point that causes more swim clubs to close. While I mentioned above that we do not discuss politics at the pool, it is important for each swim club to monitor what is happening with wages. Mandatory minimum wage in the Commonwealth of PA (as of this writing) is $7.25 per hour - the same as the Federal Minimum Wage. The lifeguards that work at our private community pools are seasonal and therefore not seeking a “living wage” as those hired into full-time, year-round jobs. With that noted, our lifeguards are required to be certified, which carries a cost to them. Lifeguard shortages are becoming a serious concern.
Understanding that raising the mandatory minimum wage to $15 per hour, as our Governor hopes to do, will double payroll expenses for some pools, other actions will be necessary to afford this increase: shortened operating hours, higher membership fees, more fundraisers or even seeking other sources of revenue. Boy, I really wish we could rent out our Lodge! In recent years, GHC has attempted to stay competitive, offering slightly higher minimum wages to our senior and head lifeguards. For the 2022 season, we increased the wage for a part-time staff lifeguard to $10 per hour, while offering our concession workers (formerly volunteers only) $8 per hour. As long as memberships are strong and we have a good year-round fundraising program, this too should be manageable.
Determining the future increase in cost of a pool membership will need to be done with a mixture of art and science. In my past experiences, this is an area that many pools did not take care in doing. A reasonable and justifiable increase in the cost of the service we provide to our members should be balanced with an equal increase in the service provided. As nice of a facility and organization we offer, everyone still has a threshold for spending.