MIDDLETOWN — Despite objections from a large number of residents who attended the township committee meeting Monday night, committee members moved forward with a plan to sell the township-owned and operated swim and tennis club.
The committee voted unanimously to introduce an ordinance allowing the committee to sell the property at public auction.
Club members, some of whom were aligned with a group calling themselves the Save Our Swim Club Committee, or SOS, showed up en mass to offer their objections and to present what they say is a viable plan to make the facility profitable.
“By making small changes this pool club can turn a profit,” argued pool club member Tracy Lewis, whose comments were met with applause from the roomful of supporters.
At the Feb. 6 meeting, Lewis described herself as a government auditor and accountant. She has been reviewing the club’s financial documents, which the SOS committee obtained through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request.
“Sometimes decisions are not popular… Sometimes it’s something you don’t want to hear,” countered Mayor Anthony Fiore. “It’s unfortunate but it’s a reality. It is what it is.”
The township has been operating the Middletown Swim and Tennis Club, 214 Harmony Road, since 1997. But it recent years, officials have said, the facility has experienced decreased membership, increased operating costs, and a need for substantial capital improvements, including upgrades to make the facility comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “The bottom line is fewer people did sign up,” said Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante, indicating membership was down by 600 from 2007 to 2011.To make just the pools ADA compliant, he said, would cost between $5,000 to 10,000 for each of the pools.
The facility, which is designated as a utility, has been operating at a loss and by township ordinance a utility has to be self-sustaining, officials said at a previous meeting. The past years’ losses were covered by the utility budget surplus, but, officials insist, that is no longer an option.
The SOS committee circulated a press release stating that a review of the facility’s finances and past operation practices showed the downward trend could be turned around. Robert Manse, an SOS member said that the SOS group’s business plan would increase membership and support the facility through increased cabana costs, the sale of day passes, renegotiating the food concession contract, increasing fees for swim teams, swim and tennis lessons and day camps, along with more aggressive marketing to bolster membership.
Thorne Place resident and club member John Russoniello blamed the township committee for the facility’s present financial predicament, alleging that the committee mismanaged the facility and its attempt to refinance the club’s existing debt backfired. “The [budget] shortfall is directly tied to your decision,” to refinance in 2007, Russoniello told the governing body.
Fiore appeared to dismiss the SOS proposal, telling the crowd, “Mr. Manse was throwing a variety of numbers out and yes, some of them were inaccurate.
“I’m a financial guy. I get what the numbers are,” Fiore insisted.
Fiore and other officials said the ordinance was the first step in the process of putting the property up for auction and no final decision has been made. But Mercantante said there are about nine entities that have expressed interest in the site.
Officials have also stressed that should the 10 acres be sold, it will be sold with a deed restriction allowing the property to be used only for recreational purposes, although not necessarily a pool club.
The public hearing and vote on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for the March 19 meeting.
Manse, who was away on business this week, criticized township officials for not having their facts straight and alleging they showed a dismissive attitude. “It’s just political nonsense,” he said.
His group is meeting with private organizations that, he said, are expressing an interest in operating the swim club, and hopes to bring these organizations to the township’s attention.
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