If you’re not familiar with West Shore Community College, it’s located in Scottville, MI and is Michigan’s third-smallest community college. If that doesn’t help much, Scottville is about 6 miles east of Ludington, and about 7 miles east of Lake Michigan, in Mason County. In 2022, WSCC had an unduplicated headcount of 1,309 students. That’s 13.25% fewer students than WSCC enrolled in 2021. It also has a swimming pool problem.
WSCC’s FY 2023 budget was $14.4M. I bring this up because WSCC has a recreation center, which opened in 1971. The recreation center has a swimming pool, which – at 52 years of age – is at the end of its useful life. The Board of Trustees at WSCC has been mulling the pool’s replacement cost. When factoring in the related costs – the pool deck, the filtration equipment, the drains and finishes, the temperature controls, the HVAC units – the replacement cost is likely somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5M. And that assumes that the engineering study – which is still incomplete – doesn’t find anything else that needs to be replaced as part of the project.
I’ll save you the math; that’s nearly one-quarter of WSCC’s annual budget. $3.5 exceeds WSCC’s annual tuition revenues by nearly $400,000 and is half of what WSCC collects in annual property taxes. I haven’t unearthed the records to determine how WSCC paid for the rec center in the first place, but I don’t need to in order to say that replacing the swimming pool represents a huge financial burden on the taxpayers who support WSCC’s educational mission. Even if WSCC distributed the cost over 10 years, it would still require a nearly 15% average annual increase in property tax collections.
Pool replacement represents 25% of annual budget
About 10 years ago, the college renovated some areas of the rec center, including the locker rooms and restrooms that serve the swimming pool. Some members of the community want the swimming pool, and 9 out of 10 people who use the recreation center say there is no reason for them to continue using the rec center without a pool.
To put some context around that, the population of Scottville was 1,366 in 2021. The population of Mason County is 29,400, and there are about 12,130 households in Mason County. WSCC’s attendance boundaries also include Manistee County, and parts of Oceana and Lake counties. There are about 525 households in Scottville, and the median household income is about $36,700. The average annual residential property tax is about $300 and property values are declining.
My point here is that the community college operates a recreational center, which it makes available to the community. People clearly value the rec center swimming pool, but it is not necessarily affordable or sustainable, and it is at the end of its functional life. Replacing it is going to be expensive for a community that does not appear to have the resources to fund its reconstruction and operation. Further closing the pool effectively closes the recreational center, which isn’t likely central to the community college’s mission.
A group of people are interested in forming a non-profit organization to promote the use of the pool. Pool usage is not really the solution; it’s likely part of the problem. Increasing pool usage will only accelerate the pool’s demise. A major replacement project is likely to close the pool for months, during which people will lose interest in the facility.
Swimming pool cost and risks outweigh benefits
The voters can certainly do what they want with their money, provided the WSCC Trustees actually put the matter in front of the voters. If they don’t, the Trustees will likely need to issue bonds that are guaranteed by the general fund. (Remember, the school’s enrollment dropped more than 13% in one year, so using the General Fund to guarantee bond repayments will trigger tuition increases. (Which will probably decrease enrollment.)
The condition of the rec center pool has put the Trustees in a bad spot. On one hand, people in the community (not necessarily the students) use the Rec Center pool. On the other hand, it’s not financially sustainable because caring for rec center facilities (especially those with pools) is exorbitantly expensive.
The condition of the pool provides an opportunity for WSCC to get out from under an unsustainable expense that benefits the community but does not necessarily benefit the college. It will be interesting to see how the WSCC Trustees navigate the issue without having the resources to rebuild the pool, a business plan to operate and maintain the facility sustainably, or an exit strategy to get out from underneath its extraordinary cost.
The things Trustees don’t think about before committing public resources to endeavors unrelated to the institution’s mission always amaze me.
Photo Credit: Eric Sonstroem , via Flickr