The Oak Ridge City Council will consider the purchase of up to about $60,000 worth of chlorine briquettes for the city’s outdoor pool on Providence Road this evening (Monday, July 12). Approval of the purchase would ensure that the large, unique pool can continue operating past mid-July, according to the city.
The purchase of the chlorine became controversial after Council member Rick Chinn, who is mayor pro tem (like a vice mayor), voted against the purchase of the briquettes last month. Chinn said he did not want to spend any more money on the pool. Residents and pool users responded with outrage, with hundreds of comments posted to social media. Some pledged to oppose Chinn’s re-election to Council next year.
Last month’s vote was for a sole-source purchase that hadn’t been released for a bid, possibly because the city’s supplier, Duffield Aquatics, had been identified as the sole provider in the region. The city uses Pulsar chlorinating briquettes supplied by Duffield Aquatics.
The sole-source purchase meant that last month’s vote required a unanimous vote. So, Chinn’s vote against the purchase meant it wasn’t approved.
Before that vote, Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Director Jon Hetrick had told the seven-member Council that the city might have enough chlorine to last through the end of June and possibly into July. Running out of chemicals to treat the pool would result in having to shut it down, Hetrick said. However, in response to questions about a potential “break in service,” Hetrick said at that meeting that he didn’t have an accurate count of the amount of chlorine in stock at the pool.
Hetrick had an updated accounting of the chlorine for the outdoor pool at the end of June. He said there is enough chlorine to continue operating the pool without interruption until a new shipment arrives in mid-July.
So, approval by the Council this evening would mean the pool should not experience a chlorine shortage.
Since the Council meeting in June, the city has solicited bids for the chlorine, and only Duffield Aquatics of Anderson, South Caroline, submitted one. That’s the same company that Council considered buying from in June. The city is asking for about $46,000 for the Duffield Aquatics bid, as well as roughly $14,000 for additional chlorine briquettes if necessary.
“Assuming it is approved, we will order chlorine the following day and should receive it by the end of the week,” Hetrick said in response to questions June 30. “We currently have enough chlorine on hand to continue pool operation without interruption until the new shipment arrives.”
The purchase after a single bid was received still requires City Council approval. However, since it was put out for bid, the vote will no longer have to be unanimous. Six Council members voted in favor of the purchase at the June meeting, so it is likely to pass when Council meets this evening.
The Pulsar chlorine briquette system was installed at the outdoor pool in 2019. It replaced the gaseous chlorine that was previously used because that is no longer available, Hetrick said in a memo to Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson on July 12.
The $46,000 bid from Duffield Aquatics includes 360 50-pound pails of Pulsar briquettes. That is what is estimated to continue operating the outdoor pool for fiscal year 2022. The city will make an initial purchase of chlorine this month to ensure a supply for the remainder of the 2021 pool season. A second purchase will be made in the spring of 2022 based on the estimated needs for the remainder of the fiscal year, which will end June 30, 2022.
Hetrick said chlorine use at the outdoor pool can vary depending upon environmental conditions, the number of pool users, and the amount of water lost or replaced. Chlorine costs may also fluctuate because of national chlorine supply shortages, Hetrick said.
Chinn advocated for closing the pool, which is leaking and could need repairs, as one of four alternative measures to try to avoid a two-cent increase in the property tax rate during budget discussions in 2019. In June, Oak Ridge Today asked Chinn about his current position regarding the pool to see if it had changed or remained the same. Chinn said he was in the process of writing an opinion column about the pool.
Chinn has cited the operating budget for the pool of more than $300,000 per year for about 2.5 months of usage. In 2019, he said that the pool was built on a spring, cracking, and falling apart. The pool has leaks all the time, Chinn said then, and the city has had work sessions about how the pool will fail.
In June, Chinn told WVLT-TV in Knoxville that his blocking of the chlorine vote was an effort to draw attention to a bigger issue that the city needs to address. He said there are major maintenance issues
“The pool is losing thousands of gallons of water right now,” Chinn told the television station. “And we’re having to replenish the pool with not only natural spring water but municipal water as well.”
Chinn told WVLT that he understands the nostalgia and love for the pool. “I share that passion. It was a great place. And what we need to do is make it a better place,” Chinn said.
Other Council members have advocated for keeping the pool open, both in 2019 and again in June. They said the pool is well-used; it is an important recreational facility for young people, including those who don’t have access to private pools; and it provides jobs to young people. The pool is a revered legacy and an important service to residents, the other Council members said.
The outdoor pool was built in 1944, when Oak Ridge was part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, by the Corps of Engineers during World War II. The pool had major renovations in 1992-1993, and it re-opened for the 1994 summer season, the city said. The pool is spring-water fed, and it is considered one of the largest in the nation, according to the city.
Watson, the city manager, has previously told City Council that additional repairs will be required to the pool. It’s a large pool with a huge base surface, and there are questions about what to do when there is another large failure and what the city can afford, Watson said.
Last month, Hetrick, the recreation director, said the pool is leaking right now. The Oak Ridge Public Works Department is investigating, but the source of the leak hadn’t been found as of last month’s City Council meeting. As a result, the city is having to add substantial amounts of water every night, Hetrick said in June.
He said the Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Advisory Board is studying the pool and considering its long-term viability. The board has background and historical information, and it is evaluating what a future pool could look like, whether new or rebuilt. A consultant or engineer could eventually be hired.
The City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday, July 12, in the Oak Ridge Municipal Building Courtroom. See the agenda here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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