With the long hot summer just beginning, public swimming pools have disappeared from much of Fresno because of the city's budget crisis.
Many youngsters without access to private pools will have to travel miles to swim in a city-operated pool or find other ways to cool off.
"This was something for them to do," said Demar Marshall, 23, referring to the two small pools at Fink-White Park in southwest Fresno that his young children used to enjoy. He said the city's closure of Fink-White's pools "is crazy."
But officials at the city's Parks Department must adapt to a financial crunch that has cut their funding by one-third and staff by half in two years. They're doing it in part by closing traditional pools and building splash parks, which are less expensive to operate.
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Splash parks don't require lifeguards and offer a variety of spray features surrounded by a non-slip surface.
Other California cities have taken similar steps. Bakersfield, for example, also has been closing its full-size, high-cost pools and opening splash parks that "are very well received by the public," said Bakersfield spokeswoman Rhonda Smiley.
Still, cutbacks in Fresno are raising concerns among some community leaders, who worry about what many youngsters will do when the temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees.
"Part of public safety is having positive opportunities for youth, and these opportunities include swimming," said the Rev. Walt Parry, retired executive director of Fresno Metro Ministry who has advocated for the city's youths for a quarter-century. "If you take them away, what then?"
From 15 to four
Two years ago, the Parks Department operated 15 pools. This summer, it has only four.
North Fresno is particularly hard hit, with no municipally-operated pools and just two recently-opened splash parks.
The only city-operated pool in central Fresno, stretching from the new housing tracts west of Highway 99 to the Clovis city boundary on the east, is Airways Municipal Golf Course.
Fresno's oldest neighborhoods in the southwest, southeast and center district are doing better -- three pools and a splash park at downtown's Dickey Playground scheduled to open in August.
There also is a splash park in Rotary Playland at Roeding Park, but it isn't city-operated.
But these older neighborhoods, home to some of Fresno's most economically challenged families, have four fewer city-operated pools than last year.
Money is the problem, and has been at City Hall for two years.
The City Council on June 25 approved Mayor Ashley Swearengin's $213 million general fund budget that anticipates a nearly $31 million deficit through 2015 if more service cuts and layoffs aren't made immediately.
"We're always doing more with less," parks director Randall Cooper said.
For parks' aquatics program, city officials said, that means keeping open only the four most-heavily used pools while focusing scarce funding on construction of splash parks.
The most northern of the four pools in operation is Airways, on Shields Avenue near Clovis Avenue. The only city-operated options north of Shields are splash parks at the Todd Beamer and Figarden Loop parks.
Cooper said the tight budget forced closure of five "learner" pools at city-owned facilities. These pools aren't as deep -- typically no more than 4 feet -- but still required life guards. Labor costs and customer traffic were the biggest factors in the city's decision on which pools to close.
The city also has nine wading pools, but seven will be empty this summer to save money and water, city officials said. The wading pools at the Frank H. Ball Community Center and the Mary Ella Brown Neighborhood Center are open.
The city operated six Fresno Unified School District high school pools in 2008, three in 2009.
It will operate none this summer.
The district contributed $15,000 each year and the city staffed the pools. But Cooper said the city never broke even.
Fresno Unified spokeswoman Susan Bedi said SwimAmerica, a private organization, wants to offer swim lessons at the Fresno High pool, but hasn't signed up enough customers. Otherwise, Bedi said, none of the district's pools will open this summer.
Other school districts (Clovis, Central) have pools that are open on a limited basis, run either by the district or an outside group.
Many Fresno neighborhoods are dotted with private pools where it's common for youngsters so blessed to invite over their friends. But not all neighborhoods and residents are that fortunate, Parry said.
Dramatically curtailing Fresnans' access to public water recreation is unfair and, in this era of obesity worries, unwise, he said.
"When the community makes these types of activities available to youths and their families, it tells them someone cares," Parry said.
During recent budget hearings, several City Council members said they were concerned to learn of Parks' proposed cuts.
Now that the city has stopped operating pools at Quigley Park and Fresno High School, Council Member Blong Xiong's district in central and southwest Fresno has no city-operated water feature.
"Am I happy with it? No," Xiong said. "I will continue to work with the administration on it."
Council Member Andreas Borgeas represents a northwest Fresno that has many affluent neighborhoods. He also represents Pinedale, many of whose residents had depended on the Pinedale Community Center's learner pool for recreation.
The pool is closed. Borgeas said he hopes donors will contribute the nearly $30,000 necessary to keep the pool open through the summer. Unfortunately, he added, the city doesn't have the money.
It's easy to explain why Fresnans, particularly the kids, love to swim on hot afternoons.
"It's fun," said Richard Lee, 13, as he took a break from swimming at the city-operated pool at Frank H. Ball Community Center in southwest Fresno. "It's good exercise, and relaxing."
And it's easy to understand the disappointment of youngsters who must now do without their neighborhood municipal pool.
"That's my only swimming pool," said Joaquin Serrano, 10, pointing to the empty Pinedale Community Center pool. "All I have at home is a slip-and-slide."
Serrano was playing Monopoly with friends inside the center. Among them was Raymond Madrigal, also of Pinedale.
"I'm upset," Madrigal said. "Maybe the pool will open next year."