Bluffton swim team balks at pool charge; county report says Fins long undercharged

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comOctober 23, 2013 

The Fins swim team is scrambling to find a permanent home after changes to its use of a county-owned pool have forced most of the team to relocate, according to coach Eric Kemeny.

Increases to the team's monthly fee to swim at the Bluffton Pool and restrictions on the number of lanes it can use have forced the team to relocate most of the team to Shell Hall, Kemeny said.

But the Fins swim team has long been undercharged for its use of the pool, according to county officials.

Parks and Leisure Department director Scott Marshall is investigating how the team has been charged for its lane usage at the pool and whether a pool or department employee made an agreement with the team that shouldn't have been made, Marshall said.

According to preliminary findings, the team could have underpaid fees by as much $15,000, county administrator Gary Kubic said. The team might not be asked to pay back that amount, but Kubic will make a recommendation after the investigation is complete, he added.

Under the current fee structure -- adopted in February 2012 -- groups are charged $4 per lane per hour or $200 to rent the entire pool for up to three hours.

However, this fall marks the first season the team of about 125 swimmers has been charged those rates, according to coach and team founder Kemeny.

In the past, the team would pay about $975 per month to use all six of the pool's lanes for three to four hours, six days a week, he said. Under the fee structure enforced by Marshall, the same number of hours using four lanes would cost more than triple that, he added.

Previous fees were worked out in an agreement with the pool manager, who then submitted them to PALS. Kemeny said he was surprised when his latest request was denied over the summer, he said

But the fee structure in place is black and white, and only the county administrator can enter into a different contract with the team, said Marshall, who became PALS director in June. In addition, two lanes must be open to the public unless the groups rents the whole pool, according to PALS' rules.

"I don't have any other alternative," Marshall said. "I can't enter into agreement with an entity like that. The only thing we can do is charge them what's on the fee schedule."

Marshall said he is trying to find out how much the team was charged in the past and how those fees were determined. He hopes to complete that report in the next few weeks, he added.

For now, the team has dramatically reduced its hours at the Bluffton pool and has moved about three quarters of its swimmers to the pool in Shell Hall, Kemeny said. In September, the team was charged for 97 hours and just under $400, Marshall said.

Shell Hall has been generous with its facilities and offers the whole pool to the team's three oldest age groups for about fours a day, six days a week, Kemeny said.

The team pays about $1,500 a month to rent Shell Hall's outdoor pool and has entered a three-year agreement to use the pool, Kemeny said.

As part of that agreement, the Fins are responsible for installing three heaters to make the outdoor pool usable during the cooler months, Kemeny said. Installation should be completed in the next couple days.

The heaters cost the team about $18,000 to buy and install, and were paid for using money raised by the team and its booster club, Kemeny said.

"We're OK," he said. "We fortunately had some money set aside and we were able to pay to get that stuff installed."

For the foreseeable future the team will use both facilities, having the younger swimmers practice at Bluffton Pool and the older swimmers at Shell Hall, Kemeny said.

"(The older kids) should be able to handle that situation a little bit better when the weather starts getting cooler," he said.

After Marshall's report is finished, county staff will review whether there should be any changes made to the way the Fins team is charged or if the previous agreements were a mistake by a county employee, Kubic said.

"It's not like this little club they're just training children, it's a business," Kubic said.

If changes do need to be made, Kubic will prepare a recommendation for the Beaufort County Council to consider.

Fins swim team relocating after changes to its fees

The Fins swim team is scrambling to find a permanent home after changes to its agreement for use of a county-owned pool have forced most of the team to relocate, according to coach Eric Kemeny.

Video by reporter Zach Murdock

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