The Aiken-Augusta Swim League addressed members of the Augusta public services committee Tuesday, outlining issues between the league and the department of recreation.
Chiefly, the group discovered that it has no valid contract with the city, giving the recreation department free reign to negotiate fees while not providing the basic services that were agreed upon back in 2015.
Rebecca Harper, president of the AASL, told commissioners that the 50-year-old organization signed what its members thought was a contract with the city to become the primary tenant of the Augusta Aquatics Center, but were recently informed that since the contract has no expiration date, it is null and void.
Harper told commissioners that not only did that give the recreation department the ability to attempt to raise the rates 125 percent over its current rates, but to also reduce the number of swim lanes the group can use for practice and swim meets.
Commissioners also heard that the building is understaffed and poorly maintained; with costly equipment being accidentally destroyed, equipment rendered useless by being installed improperly and the swim and dive area being dimly lit because employees can’t seem to manage changing light bulbs.
The committee did not take action other than ordering the parties to meet with City Administrator Odie Donald and attempt to iron out any differences and then present the commission with a legal agreement.
“It doesn’t surprise me. I really can’t say it surprises me at all,” Harper said as she recounted what she described as an ongoing bureaucratic nightmare.
According to Harper, the AASL has paid an average of $3,000 a month to use the facility with some extra fees for special events. At first, the city wanted to raise that fee to around $7,000 a month by claiming the current contract is void.
The group managed to negotiate the fee down to an average of $4,000 a month, but now the recreation department wants to limit the group from using 14 lanes in the pool down to 10 lanes only. The pool has 18 lanes.
Augusta Recreation Director Maurice McDowell spoke at the meeting and said the department felt justified in raising the fees and limiting the amount of lanes used because most of the membership of the AASL resided in Columbia and Aiken Counties.
District 10 Commissioner John Clarke asked McDowell how many families in Richmond County have memberships to the Augusta Aquatics Center and what the fees were for membership.
“I don’t know off the top of my head. A normal day is no more than four or five bucks. You get a discount if you go with annuals,” McDowell said.
That statement prompted Harper to recite from memory the monthly and yearly membership fees for the facility and reminded McDowell that the information was easily accessible on the city website.
Harper then acknowledged that the league does have its primary membership in Aiken and Columbia Counties, but that the AASL has, as the primary tenant of the building, offered to provide free swimming courses for Richmond County residents only.
“We have agreed to provide 60 slots every six weeks to Richmond County citizens who want to learn to swim, and hopefully, some of them will want to get into competitive swimming,” Harper said.
According to Harper, the AASL has faced more problems than just the rental fee issues, and the facility has a history of negligence when it comes to maintenance.
The AASL used grant money to purchase diving blocks for the facility and Harper says they offered to help install the equipment, but were told it had to go through the bidding process.
The diving blocks ended up being installed incorrectly and are now being stored in a weight room until presumably another bid goes out for a replacement.
According to Harper, the timer system that AASL uses for events was left at the edge of the pool by Aquatic Center employees and later accidentally knocked into the water. Records obtained show that the replacement cost of the timer system is $15,000.
Just this past weekend, according to Harper, the AASL had to cancel weekend activities because a fire detection sensor failed and kept sending fire signals to emergency services and the building ultimately had to be shut down even though it clearly was not on fire.
A quick inspection of the facility by this reporter showed that Harper is correct in stating that lighting inside the swim area is dim due to the fact that many of the light bulbs illuminating the area are not functional.
The walkthrough inspection also verified that there was no one using the pools or any of the other facilities in the building. Indeed, the building featuring an Olympic-size pool along with a separate dive area was, on a hot summer day, deserted besides a few staff members.
Harper said that her group is the organization helping keep the Aquatic Center alive and the interstate swim meets held by the organization bring a boon to the local economy.
“When we host a meet, people are coming from Atlanta, Savannah, Columbia… And it is entire families. They are staying in our list of “team hotels” in Augusta and eating at Augusta restaurants,” Harper said.