The Augusta Parks and Recreation Department closed the Augusta Aquatic Center on Friday, Aug. 27 for no stated reason, and a recent resignation just guaranteed the center’s struggles will get harder.
Not only did the Parks and Recreation department offer no reason for the closure, no employees were on site Friday.
For Kathlene Wilkinson and her daughter Lilly, the continued problems at the Augusta Aquatics Center are a killjoy for a sport they love. The Wilkinson’s were tasked with letting other swim league participants know about the closure and to reroute them over to the Henry Brigham Swim Center on Golden Camp Road.
Rather than swimming and practicing competitive swimming skills, Lilly Wilkinson stood in the rain with her mother and directed others to go to the Brigham Center to practice.
“I would rather be swimming than doing this,” she said.
Employee turnover has plagued the Augusta Parks and Recreation Department for several years. The most recent resignation is especially problematic.
The county’s only certified pool operator, Gerry Simard, resigned as of Aug. 20. He had worked for the Parks and Recreation Department for nearly eight years. In addition to being responsible for the chemical levels in the county pools, Simard was also a lifeguard trainer for the Augusta Aquatics Center.
The city has just a couple of weeks to find a replacement for Simard or it will be forced by law to close the Aquatics Center as well as the two other public pools in Augusta that are operating.
Director Maurice McDowell says the city is working hard to find an immediate replacement, which, under state law, must happen no less than 30 days from an announced vacancy.
According to Simard’s resignation letter to McDowell, “The climate at the Augusta Aquatics Center and my work ethic and professionalism are no longer compatible.”
McDowell, for his part, says he cannot comment directly on Simard’s resignation, but he said that eventually the evidence will show that it was a good break for both parties.
“I wish I could comment, but I really can’t for legal reasons, but, trust me, this was a good thing to happen and I wish Mr. Simard well,” McDowell said.
Simard says that he has tried to the best of his ability to keep the pool at the Aquatic Center a safe swimming area despite lack of resources and the bureaucratic problems he says come from the top levels of Augusta government. He maintains that his supervision of the pool has been adequate over the years of his tenure.
However, an independent review of pool records shows that its chemical levels have not been maintained properly, and Rebecca Harper, president of the Aiken-Augusta Swim League is on the record saying that the high level of chlorine in the water has been a reason for the pool to close in the past.
According to Simard, he had no problem maintaining chemical balances in the pool. He says he quit out of principle when McDowell curtailed his ability to control lifeguards at the facility.
“The lifeguards are incompetent, and their behavior is borderline negligent,” Simard said.
Simard says he reported to McDowell that lifeguards at the Aquatics Center no longer used the observation platforms. Instead, they sit in the bleachers nearby playing on their cell phones, which distracts them from monitoring swimmers in the water.
“This is a huge pool, and the lifeguards should be paying constant attention throughout the entire length of the building, but instead they are looking at their phones, totally unaware of what is going on around them,” Simard said.
Members of the Aiken-Augusta Swim League say otherwise. They contend that the city-provided lifeguards who attend their swim meets are professional and do not shirk their duties.
According to Simard, he reported to McDowell that the lifeguards would regularly order lunch and go out of the swim area to eat, leaving the pool unsupervised, but he says McDowell told him to avoid “harassing” the lifeguards and that “if the lifeguards quit, we have to close the pool.”
The final straw, according to Simard, was when McDowell instructed him not to have any contact with the lifeguards who, as an American Red Cross certified lifeguard trainer, he was employed by the city to oversee and train.
“Again, I can’t comment on a personnel matter, but let’s just say, I ask all my employees to watch their language when talking to other employees, that’s all I can say,” McDowell said.
Simard sees things differently.
“That was ridiculous, after almost eight years, I am told not to speak to the lifeguards that I am supposed to be in charge of. It is the tail wagging the dog. It became the part-timers versus the qualified full-time trainer,” Simard said.
The Aiken-Augusta Swim League negotiated a new contract with City Administrator Odie Donald earlier this month that allows them to continue to use the Aquatic Center; however, maintenance was not discussed at the meeting. Two commissioners and media representatives were invited to that meeting but were barred by Donald from observing. The agreement has not yet gone before the county commission for approval.
Previously, the AASL had complained publicly about damage to equipment due to negligence, equipment being installed improperly, equipment such as fire alarms malfunctioning and problems with the climate control system.
Rebecca Harper, president of the AASL says the league is happy with the terms of the new agreement even if all of their concerns were not addressed.
“They came in and changed the light bulbs, so I guess that is a step in the right direction,” Harper said.
The Parks and Recreation Department has come under scrutiny from Augusta commissioners lately for the lax attention paid to cutting grass at the various recreation sites across the city and specifically, the maintenance at the city’s public pools.
Richmond County maintains eight public pools and the Charles Evans Splash Pad located on Highland Avenue. Only three of the eight pools are open. The rest are closed for maintenance-related issues, according to signs on the buildings.
An open records request yielded 382 pages of maintenance logs for issues at the pools that occurred between January 2018 and July 2021. Most of the maintenance issues centered around roof leaks, bathroom problems, lighting and electrical issues.
One roof issue was so severe that on June 7, a city employee responded via email saying, “The entire roof of the administrative part of the facility has several leaks. Currently, there is a major leak in the multi-purpose room. Leakage occurs every time after rain… During an event yesterday, we were barely able to prevent the fire marshal from closing down since the leakage went through electrical structures.”
The repair took seven weeks to complete.
A report on lighting issue filed on May 17 indicated that multiple lights over the pool deck needed to be replaced, but a company could not be located to make the repair. It took a week to respond to the initial request and then another four days to determine that the service would need to be contracted out because the staff didn’t have the proper equipment to make the repair. The service request says the matter was dealt with and the request was closed, but there is no documentation the repair was ever made.
One plumbing leak on May 17 went unrepaired for two months. The Parks and Recreation Department was having trouble getting a lighting issue fixed because it was having issues finding a company willing to take the job.
A cross section of other recent maintenance requests are summarized below:
- July 28, 2021 – Light above the entrance is out safety issue. Outside light above the roll back door is out.
- June 26, 2021 – Recommend getting a contractor to look on the roof to see where the issue can be resolved. Also recommend a contractor come spray a foam substance to slow the leak down and control the mildew and mold until the roof is repaired.
- June 23, 2021 – There is a huge swim meet this weekend, and there are weeds every everywhere.
- June 15, 2021 – Water pipe coming up through the ground near the swimming pool to the park.
Revenues at the Aquatics Center have also steadily declined. Maintenance expenses have averaged roughly $35,000 per year for 2018 to 2020. During the same time payroll plus benefits increased 22% to $368,000 per year. Only three city employees were listed as employed at the Aquatics Center as of Friday, Aug. 27, according to an open records request filed of the information.