By Kathleen Foody
Wausau Daily Herald

ROTHSCHILD — The Rothschild-Schofield Aquatic Center has lost more than $318,000 over the last three years, and taxpayers in the two municipalities are being forced to pick up that tab.

Elected officials from both Rothschild and Schofield said they aren’t thrilled with the facility’s perpetual debt, particularly when municipal budgets everywhere are stretched to the breaking point. But they view it as a reasonable price to pay to improve life in the area, they said, and they have no plans to address the losses.

“It seems every year, the pool is brought up and aldermen ask whether it’s worth the cost,” said Kregg Hoehn, who represents Schofield’s 4th Ward and chairs the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee. “It’s hard to put a price tag on what’s worth the enjoyment of families.”

The total price tag for operating the pool in 2009, when it lost $87,365, was $172,780.

The village of Rothschild pays 66.67 percent of the center’s costs, and the city of Schofield pays the remaining 33.33 percent, a ratio that roughly corresponds with each municipality’s population. The municipalities absorb their share of the debt created each year using the same formula.

Rothschild covers its share of the debt with hotel-room tax money, Village Board member Dan Mortensen said.

“It comes down to being a community service we provide, and we’ve been funding that deficit, and we knew we’d be funding a deficit (when the pool was built),” Mortensen said.

The pool problem

Over the past several years, Wausau’s swimming pools have gotten the most scrutiny in the metro area as they have hemorrhaged money and been targeted for $8 million in improvements. It turns out that the Rothschild-Schofield pool is losing money almost as quickly as Wausau’s three neighborhood pools.

“It’s something as a community you do and realize you’re not going to get rich on,” said Ken Fabel, Schofield’s acting mayor. “You’re providing a service to citizens, and if that comes at some minimal cost, fine, I’ll accept it.”

Officials said the Rothschild-Schofield center is geared toward young children — as opposed to its next-door competition, Weston’s Aquatic Center, which is equipped with a large slide and draws more teenagers.

But the Weston center also has never completed a season with a deficit as high as the Rothschild-Schofield center. In 2009, the Weston facility made a $1,303 profit. The facility lost about $1,385 in 2007 and $175 in 2008.

Local residents — at least those using the south-side pools last week — said they don’t expect the aquatic centers to make a profit and that an inexpensive place to swim close to home is worth the price municipalities pay.

Lori Minnihan of Schofield brings her 4-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter to the Rothschild-Schofield Aquatic Center five or six times a month. She said the pool is a fun and affordable family activity.

“The kids enjoy it so much,” Minnihan said. “It would be hard if they had to increase prices or cut hours.”

No solutions

The three-person commission that oversees the pool includes one Schofield resident and one Rothschild resident appointed by their respective municipal boards. Those two then agree on a third member invited to help guide the pool.

As of now, the commission has no plans to raise fees or otherwise address the annual deficits, chairwoman Julie Kamke said.

“We try to keep this affordable, and we realize that some families can’t even afford to come here as much with the prices we charge,” she said.

The lack of a plan to address the debt doesn’t sit well with Hoehn, Schofield’s parks director. He said he wasn’t asked to attend the commission’s meeting before this season began and was disappointed not to be included. He said he’s not sure what specific changes could improve the aquatic center’s financial situation, but he would like to hear some ideas.

“I don’t think they’re doing a bad job,” he said of the commission. “But with an expenditure like that, it probably would be beneficial to get everybody involved and see if we can increase the bottom line.”

Commission member Scott Dunst, though, said all the people in the world can’t do anything about the biggest problem plaguing the pool in recent years.

“Last year, it was cold so nobody came. This year, we’ve had some hot days, but then we have storms,” he said.

Exactly how many people have or haven’t come to the pool can’t be determined because the commission does not keep track of attendance.

“The employees say there seems to be more people,” Kamke said.