SAN CLEMENTE — They put aside their canes and, for a moment, forgot about the ailments that brought them here, to the city's 54-year-old municipal pool and their morning physical therapy class.
One after another, in what could have been a scene from the movie "Cocoon," the line of mostly elderly people entered the heated water. A woman in a wheelchair came a little late. She slowly eased herself into the water, grabbed a plastic foam board and flutter-kicked to an open spot in the pool.
It was a routine morning at San Clemente's municipal pool, known as the Ole Hanson Beach Club, built in 1937 and named for the town's founding father.
But for this class, a cloud of uncertainty hovered over the normally joyful morning routine Tuesday. The city, strapped for cash, is thinking about closing the pool in the winter, and those who showed up were worried that this could put their recreational therapy in jeopardy.
"It is the only exercise I can do," said San Clemente resident Sue Theiler, 75, who because of arthritis has had two hip joints and a knee replaced. Trim in a flower-print bathing suit, Theiler said that she and her companions, many of whom have become good friends, also get a lot of fun out of the water aerobics. "You go because it makes you feel so good," she said.
Like others, Theiler noted that the buoyancy they feel in the water enables them to move without the pain that otherwise encumbers them.
Ruth Cooper, another senior arthritis sufferer, leaves her silver-handled cane on the side of the pool.
"In the water you don't feel" the arthritis, she said.
Lynn Miller, the latecomer in the wheelchair, is 29 and is prevented from walking by a disease that has made her bones brittle. But in the pool, the San Clemente resident said, "I swim like a fish."
But for them and others, the pool may soon be opened only during the three summer months--a decision, city officials note, brought on by recessionary budget problems.
In response to a directive from the city manager that all city departments find ways to cut their budgets by 6%, the city's Parks and Recreation Division has suggested that the pool be closed nine months out of the year.
That would produce a net savings of about $39,000 annually in staff, equipment and maintenance costs.
City parks officials note that while 3,000 to 4,000 people use the swimming pool during the summer months, that number sharply declines to between 200 and 300 people during the winter. Besides those enrolled in aquatic exercises, the year-round group includes lap swimmers and participants in an adult competitive-swim program.
Michael W. Parness, the city manager, said the Parks and Recreation Division determined that "quite a large sum of money was going out to benefit a rather small group of people, and if we had to cut the 6%, this would be the one area where it would make a lot of sense."
But the people who would be hurt, though perhaps relatively small in number, have reacted with a thunderous voice. As soon as word spread that the pool might be closed, swimmers sent "tons of letters" of protest, Parness said.
Mary Glendinning , 43, who swims a mile every day as therapy for multiple sclerosis, operates a word-processing business out of her home in San Clemente. When she first saw a notice of the budget-cutting proposal posted in the women's locker room earlier this month, she volunteered to write letters for others who were without typewriters or unable to compose one for themselves.
She figures she alone has written about 50 letters. "Each letter went 13 different places" to pertinent public officials, she said.
About 150 protesters showed up at the Parks and Recreation Commission's May 14 meeting. In response to their complaints, the commission unanimously agreed to recommend that the City Council not close the pool in the off-season and find some other way to help balance the city budget.
It will be up to the City Council to make the final decision, and that may not come until early July.
Evelyn Fernandez, one of the parks commissioners, said she received 68 letters from people who want to keep the pool open all year, which is the way it has been operated since 1985. She said she was impressed by the number of people of all ages who need the exercise for therapy.
Moreover, Fernandez said that about 80% of those who wrote indicated they would be willing to pay a higher fee to use the pool. Exercise classes now cost $23 per month, with discount rates of $21 for seniors, and lap swimmers pay $1.50 per session.
Bonnie Martinez, a supervisor with the the Parks and Recreation Division, said her office is searching for alternatives.
"We don't really want to close it down either," she said.
These alternatives, she said, include raising pool-use fees, charging for parking, having a concessionaire take over pool operations during the off season or subsidizing the pool from other city programs.
Vickie Mierau, an instructor for the pool exercise program, which draws participants not only from San Clemente but from Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and Trabuco Canyon, said she is considering moving the classes to the Dana Point Resort. But she added it isn't certain whether the hotel would approve such an arrangement.
Jeff McDermott, a longstanding member of the San Clemente Masters Program, a branch of a national adult competitive swim organization, said that if the group is forced to move to the nearest public pool in Laguna Niguel, about half of its 50 members would have to drop out because the commute would not fit into their work schedules.
Mayor Scott Diehl said he was "hopeful we will find a way to keep the pool open, but it is not going to be easy. It is going to be a balancing act to find a solution that works for the whole city."