Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

City councilor chastises city manager for failure to make repairs at city pool

By Pat Caldwell


A flotsam of good intentions gone awry and miscommunication trail in the wake of an effort to replace the domestic hot water system at the city-owned Sam-O-Swim Center, in a saga one elected official said is evidence the city failed.

The central issue in this nine-month situation revolved around uncertainty regarding what entity was responsible for a grant writing process, and input from the city on the endeavor.

The fallout from the repair project sparked questions from Baker City Councilor Roger Coles and Baker County YMCA director Heidi Dalton regarding whether the city was committed to infrastructure repairs.

The YMCA manages Sam-O, which continues to operate normally.

The issue emerged during the Baker City Council's Jan. 14 session when Dalton, the CEO of the Baker YMCA, gave a short presentation on Sam-O-Swim.

Dalton asked the council for a commitment regarding needed repairs at the center, which sparked a brief outburst from Coles.

Coles asked City Manager Mike Kee why the domestic hot water system was not repaired, especially since money was allocated for just such a project in the center's budget.

"Why in the hell hasn't this been fixed?" Coles asked during the Jan. 14 session.

Kee replied that the money budgeted for the repairs proved to be an inadequate amount. Coles said Kee's statement "sounded like an excuse."

The short exchange between Coles and Kee punctuated a tale that at first glance appeared to contain all of the themes of a minor administrative issue with an easy fix.

Yet an unexplained communication chasm served to swallow good intentions and leave elected leaders and appointed officials scratching their heads and searching for answers.

Coles said the maintenance problems at the indoor swim facility are not new nor, in his opinion, were they addressed in a timely manner by city staff.

"We've been talking about the problems down there for three to four years and the problems are not fixed. The city dropped the ball in my opinion," Coles said.

The proposed renovation of the domestic hot water system at Sam-O revolves around the fact that an item called a heat exchanger - located inside a tank dubbed a Templifier that provides heat for the pool - leaks and needs to be replaced. Another problem the city faces at the facility is the boiler. The boiler provides heat for the building and needs a new gasket.

While about $25,000 was set aside for repairs, city officials at first expected the cost of any renovation to the hot water system to exceed that amount.

Dalton said that last spring the YMCA approached the city regarding a proposal to frame a grant to furnish the extra funding deemed necessary at the time to complete repairs to the hot water system.

"We asked the city to partner with us," Dalton said.

What Dalton said her organization needed from the city to move forward with the grant process was project bid data on the system.

During the next few months Dalton said her organization repeatedly sought information from the city in an effort to move ahead on the grant writing proposal but made little headway.

"Nothing happened. Both (Baker City Public Works Director) Michelle Owen and Mike Kee have letters specifically outlining to them what we need to write the grant. The city has not cooperated with us to write grants," Dalton said.

The problem remained unresolved but erupted into a small-scale crisis in December when the domestic hot water system - specifically the Templifier - was "yellow tagged" after a routine inspection. That "yellow tag" scenario means the Templifier must be fixed or replaced by Feb. 28. If it isn't fixed, the pool would close down. By the first of the year, the window to write a grant and then submit it for approval had closed.

Meanwhile, the city did move ahead with a program to request proposals for the replacement of the leaking heat exchanger - the bid process closes today - and also plans to replace the boiler gasket when the repairs to the exchanger are made.

While the problem appears to be on its way to a resolution, for Coles the length of time it took for the city to act on the issue remains a frustrating subject.

"It shouldn't have got to this point," Coles said.

Kee said miscommunication played a vital role in the grant writing narrative.

"I assure you we really want to get the thing fixed. Everyone's intentions were good. The city certainly doesn't want the pool to fail. I think we miscommunicated," Kee said.

Dalton said her aim is simple: raise awareness regarding maintenance issues regarding a facility she manages for the city.

"The pool is one of my biggest priorities," she said. "I'm just trying to compel the city to action."

Coles asserted the domestic hot water system is indicative of a general city approach to repairs to existing infrastructure.

"The city does not, and has not, been overly excited about taking care of asset maintenance.

"They just occupy themselves doing other things they think are more important," he said.

The next key question is where the money will come from for repairs at Sam-O.

Kee said the city will present several options to the Council regarding how to pay for the repairs.

"We can move money around within funds or defer things we were going to do and pay for this," he said.

Kee said he wishes the entire episode ended in a different manner.

"We've had internal discussions about how this could be handled better," he said.

Coles said the pool is an important fixture to the community.

"The pool is a tremendous asset to the kids. It's a great thing," he said.