SANTA PAULA — Despite a last-minute bailout a year ago for the city's only public swimming pool, a recurring money shortage threatens to turn it from liquid oasis to parched desert.
The YMCA rescued the pool from closing last year when the Santa Paula Union High School District could no longer afford to run it.
But the Y may be forced to fill the pool with sand if it cannot raise $9,000 in donations by July 31, officials said.
Admission fees cover wages and aquatic programs, said JC Holt, executive director of Ventura Family YMCA. But Holt said the Y must spend $30,000 a year to maintain the 75-by-30-foot pool at Santa Paula High School, which it leases from the school district.
"Last year was the first year of trying to go through this, and we really didn't raise enough money last year and the Y ended up eating it," he said. "We're a nonprofit organization, but not that kind of nonprofit."
Without the money, the pool will close for good Aug. 23, officials said.
After-school swim programs planned through October would be canceled. The season for YMCA's novice swim team--which has its inaugural meet Saturday--would go down the drain. The high school's 38-member varsity swim team would go into permanent dry-dock.
Drained, the pool would be filled with sand to prevent its aging walls' collapse or its unauthorized use by skateboarders. Then, officials said, it probably would never reopen.
The threat of closure saddened patrons, more than 100 of whom use the pool every weekday.
"It's a bummer," said Julia Stone, 62, as she watched her two grandchildren frolic with more than 60 other children in the pool. "If they close it, that's going to put a lot of kids out on the street."
At least 40 years old, the run-down pool is hardly palatial. The barbed wire atop its water-stained walls is rusty. Parents watching their kids must sit on rickety benches.
The pool not only provides the small town with one of its few available forms of recreation, but also a sense of community.
Children wait in line for up to an hour before it opens. Many are daily visitors from poorer families, said pool supervisor Sheryl Maniss, 28, who coaches the high school swim team.
Maniss sits at a worn wooden counter beside a forlorn goldfish named Trevor II, where she regularly accepts small change from youngsters who raid their piggy banks to come up with the admission price. On a first-name basis with many kids, she cheerfully punches requested telephone numbers into a phone so their parents can come pick them up.
"We're a very cheap baby-sitting service," Maniss said.
Older youths whom she suspects may be on the fringes of gang life are forbidden to wear black T-shirts and must reduce the length of baggy shorts before jumping in.
"This is a safe place for them to be," Maniss said.
Last year the pool was saved from closure when the YMCA took over its care and a prominent Santa Paula family agreed to match donations dollar for dollar to raise the $30,000 for the pool's operation.
Fund-raising efforts still fell $9,000 short then--as they have so far this year, Holt said.
Last week, the YMCA canvassed previous benefactors in a search for more cash. About $6,000 was pledged at one fund-raising event, but it was not enough.
The eyes of Rene Maldonado, 13, grew wide when he learned this week of the pool's plight.
"I don't want this pool to close," said the Isbell Middle School student. "I meet my friends right here, and they taught me how to swim."
For many, those kind of reactions underline the pool's importance to the town.
"Santa Paula has serious social problems," said Kioren Moss, a member of the YMCA's board and pool fund-raising committee. "We may not be able to reach the 19-year-olds. But we can reach the 9-year-olds. This pool is an investment in their future and Santa Paula's future."