LIVINGSTON, NJ — The ongoing discussion of whether to close one of Livingston’s two community pools—a topic that has been hotly debated for several years, but came to a temporary halt in 2020 due to the pandemic—has become a priority among township officials once again as the summer draws near and revenue continues to be a concern.

Acknowledging that the long-term solution for the two pools is going to be a complicated and ongoing conversation, the Livingston Township Council and Senior, Youth and Leisure Services (SYLS) department have agreed to focus on how to bring in enough revenue to support the opening of both pools in 2021 in order to appease those who prefer one pool over the other.

After weeks of debate over Northland Park Pool—which is historically the less popular of Livingston’s two pools but still has a loyal following—the township determined that SYLS would continue to offer weekend-only passes for Northland over the next few weeks. Keeping in mind that SYLS will need to bring in at least $31,000 in order to justify opening Northland pool to the public this summer, the township and SYLS plan to re-evaluate the status of Northland memberships at the end of May to determine whether opening is financially feasible.

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If not, members who have purchased passes with the intention of only attending Northland Park Pool will be refunded by June 15, according to SYLS Director Jennifer Walker.

“I think that we had a successful summer at the pools [in 2020] given the cards we were dealt,” said Walker, whose team had only two weeks to prepare after Gov. Phil Murphy announced that pools and day camps would be permitted to open with state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions. “We opted not to open Northland to the public last year simply because Haines is used about 70-to-75% more than the Northland is, and we wanted to keep the pool open that engaged the most residents.

“The governor had put in a stipulation that we were allowed to only go up to 50% of capacity, [so] 386 was our target of what we could not go over legally last year at Haines. Based on that and based on the amount of memberships that were sold last year and the cost and the revenue, we made the recommendation to do the same thing this year.”

Over the last decade, Walker noted that the number of Livingston residents who utilize the Mervyn V.T Haines Pool on Wahler Road near the high school is consistently about 70% higher than those who utilize Northland each year.

As the conversation continues, council members and the SYLS department agree that Northland—which is also in need of more renovations than Haines—would be the pool to go if they were to shut one down permanently in the future. However, Walker also explained that the pool needs to be maintained mechanically each year until the township makes a decision, making it easier to open or close the pool at any point during the upcoming season.

Maintaining the pool also allows SYLS to keep it open for the township's day camp throughout the season even if it's not open to the public. 

“What's important to remember is that we still have to have Northland up and running,” said Walker. “A pool complex can't sit empty for one year. Even if it sits empty for one season, it would be catastrophic for the following year, mechanically speaking. Northland needs to be up and running mechanically, so if we see a spike in membership—or more than last summer—we would have the capability of opening up Northland pretty much immediately.”

In addition to the capacity restrictions that could play a role again in 2021 due to the pandemic, sufficient revenue, staffing and a need for renovations continue to be major concerns at Northland pool.

“The pool is obviously supposed to be self-liquidating and it's a separate utility, meaning it brings in as much as it spends,” said Township Manager Barry Lewis. “So if it’s not, and it ends the year with a deficit, then in 2022, the current fund budget has to raise that amount.

“Part of the challenge is that last year, we kind of just knew that memberships were likely going to be down because of COVID, and we had no way of knowing how much reduced we were going to be. We do have at least some track record from last year to kind of project, and obviously the hope is that maybe that'll increase this year, […] but the challenge is, if we commit to opening Northland certain days, you can't really close it after you’ve already sold memberships based on the promise of it being open but don’t sell enough memberships.”

Walker explained that as of the end of February, the department was about $2,000 short of where it was with memberships at the same time in 2020. Although it’s still “very early,” Walker noted that this is “a good parameter to look at” when discussing memberships for the upcoming season at both pools.

“I'm going to be completely honest with you, this year is a big question mark,” she said. “We've met and we discussed about the pool budget, and it's a big question mark on whether or not we will even meet the criteria to fully fund Haines.

"We just don't know…I hate to say it, but my professional opinion is we're not going to reach $31,000. I just don't think we're going to be near that. If we were even close to that, then I think that we would probably lean towards leaving it open; but if we're nowhere near that, then we would refund those by June 15 so that we can make sure that we offer the refund before the season opens.”

Recognizing the effect that staffing will have on this and future seasons at the pools, Walker and her team determined that in order to open Northland on the weekends from the end of June through Labor Day Weekend, the cost to staff managers and lifeguards would amount to $30,960. She noted that this sum also includes a gate checker but does not include the additional costs for pool maintenance through the Livingston Department of Public Works (DPW) and other positions she might need to fill in accordance with COVID-19 protocols, such as an exit person and what Murphy has dubbed a “social-distancing ambassador.”

“It's not pennies, and that's just for Saturdays and Sundays,” said Walker. “That’s averaging the lifeguards at $13 an hour—which is how much the minimum wage is going up for us—and it does not include DPW maintenance of the pools or any chemicals or water or anything like that…

“The real main issue this year is COVID, and we don't know what's going to happen. If we get to the point where we have steady membership and we see the membership numbers that we saw in 2019, then it’s another conversation; but if we see the numbers that we saw in 2020, we didn't even hit 50% capacity at Haines at one time.”

Also playing a factor with memberships at Northland is the absence of a splash pad and baby pool, which Walker said would cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to renovate.

“Even if you approved the money in capital, it would be a huge stretch to get it completed before June,” she said. “You don't have to in order to open the main pool, but it does affect family memberships because if people looking to go there with little children probably won't because there's no splash pad or baby pool area.”

Due to the uncertainty about the future of the two facilities, Lewis pointed out that there is currently no capital funding set aside for either pool. Although the need for renovations has affected membership sales, Lewis said the township does not see the value of investing large sums into either pool until a long-term plan is developed.

“We have to base this on the long-term plan, whatever that may be,” said Walker. “I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, and I wish it were a different story. I wish the economy were different than it is because [Northland] is really a beautiful property.”

Overall, all township council members agreed that the immediate goal for the summer of 2021 is to do what they can to respond to the “outcry” from Northland regulars to open the facility while still being fiscally responsible if the numbers don’t support its opening.

“I’d like to look to see how close we get because if we’re not even close, we’re going to have to look at Barry and Jen and see what kind of impact it’s going to have financially going forward,” said Councilman Rudy Fernandez. “If they say it's really going to have a significant negative financial impact that’s going to be difficult to come out of, then I have to go with Barry and Jen's recommendation, but I'm willing to try it and see how close we get. At that point, I would like to hear from Barry and Jen to see how difficult the financial position that puts us in and then and if it’s something that we can live with.”

Councilman Michael Vieira was tentative about offering weekend memberships and then possibly needing to take them away, but ultimately agreed that this was the best plan of action for the upcoming season.

“It has my vote to open on the weekends, although I think we really need to seriously have a conversation about what we're going to be doing in the future,” he said. “We're almost so close to summer already that we have to actually start planning, so my vote for now would be opening for the weekend, but then to talk about whether this town needs two pools or not.”

Deputy Mayor Ed Meinhardt and Councilman Al Anthony also agreed, adding that they trust Walker to make the recommendation that is in the best interest of the township.

“Until we see the actual dollars as to where we are, I don't think that we, as a council, can really figure out exactly 100% what we're doing,” said Meinhardt. “It's a very difficult decision, but I would like to see where we are in 30 or 40 or 50 days from now…You’ve led us down the right path all these years. We trust you, we value your opinion, and you've always given us good advice.”

Mayor Shawn Klein reiterated that this discussion was conducted “with the intention of providing the pool” in order to make residents happy, but agreed that a hard decision would need to be made in the coming months “if the money’s not there.”

He also expressed hope that the council would resume the “difficult conversation” about a long-term solution for the pools after this summer.

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