City officials think they’ve found the solution to a dispute over how much the Atlantic City Aquatic Club pays to use the local high school’s pool.
The proposal: establish a system to ensure enough city residents are swimming on the team at a discounted rate to justify the club using the eight-lane pool for nothing but its share of utility and upkeep costs, or about $7,000 annually, said Shermaine Gunter-Gary, city superintendent of recreation.
It had been that way for 15 years when administrators announced over the summer that the cost to use the facility would increase from that $7,000 to $85,000 per year.
That amount is on par with what other aquatic facilities charge, assistant Superintendent Barry Caldwell, has previously said.
But it's more than 12 times what the club had been paying. Caldwell did not return calls seeking comments for this story.
"We won't survive that," said head coach Dimitar Petrov.
Petrov spoke on a recent afternoon when he caught momentary breaks during practice between explaining a workout to competitive swimmers, talking to other coaches, and helping one very young one put on her cap and goggles.
Petrov runs a program that consistently develops athletes who get scholarships to swim in college. Some have made Olympic Trials. One 9-year-old broke Michael Phelps’ age-group backstroke record last year. And swimming is a low-impact and effective way to cross-train and develop a cardiovascular base for other sports.
Of 150 swimmers, 62 live in Atlantic City, Gunter-Gary said.
But one family drives from Hammonton; another from Ocean City. Both pass other club teams closer to home to work out in Atlantic City. The facility is arguably South Jersey's nicest: an open-air observation area overlooks the pool, which has eight lanes instead of the standard six. And two-level windows showcase the wetlands and bay.
It is more than that, according to 15-year-old Charmaine Chew.
"The coaches here give more personal attention," said Chew, who started the sport at 5 years old and joined ACAC seven years ago. "It's their passion. They just seem to care more."
The combination is enough to motivate Chew - and her parents - to drive six days every week from Hammonton, where the public high school doesn't have a swim team.
Chew, whose mom is on the board of directors, said before heading into practice that she heard the club might be in trouble. She's worried, she said.
At the last Board of Education, the club’s board and other parents made it clear they wouldn’t let the team fold, at least not without a fight.
Some board members including Kirk Dooley and Shay Steele cautioned against moving forward to quickly and insisted on the status quo for another month to allow foran agreement.
Steele did not return calls for comment. Dooley was unreachable.
Their next session is Oct. 15 - five days after the meeting where Gunter-Gary will make her suggestions.
Gunter suggests that $68,000 is a more appropriate figure than $85,000. She arrived at that based on the daily rate provided by Caldwell, but adjusted it for what she says is actual historic use of the pool by the club.
Gunter said the board just wants more control over how the fees are determined to make sure it’s getting best value for what they were putting out.
Her premise is that the money saved on participation rates by city residents swimmers should be deducted from the total fee the club is charged for using the pool.
It would work like this:
Exact participation costs vary depending on a swimmer’s ability and experience level, but typically fall around $1,200 for non-residents and $200 for residents.
So, if at least 68 kids from Atlantic City are swimming, the $1,000 per difference swim charge would be deducted from the starting $68,000 and the club’s share would be covered.
Any fewer, and the club owes the difference. Sixty two Atlantic City athletes, for example, which is the current number, would amount to a $6,000 owed--not including the roughly $7,000 the club already pays for upkeep
"We wanted to keep things the way things are now," said Wilbur Banks, acting director of the city's health and human services department, including the recreation division.
That seemed reasonable to Petrov.
Gunter-Gary will present a draft memorandum of understanding Wednesday to club and Atlantic City Public School District representatives.
"I think it’s fair, I think it makes sense," she said. "Hopefully, (the board) will see the value of the swim club."