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June 2004 - Issue Number 202

Amenities: Managing Swimming Pools
By Michael Gwertzman

When the mercury hits 90 during the sweltering summer months, the residents at the Hempstead Gardens co-op in Long Island have only one concern: finding a good spot for lounging by the pool. But Kaled property manager Terry Borg has an entirely different set of worries. He's hoping his lifeguard doesn't decide it's a good day to play hooky. "Even lifeguards that seem very responsible and start out good, sometimes have different priorities near the end of the summer," he sighs.
A swimming pool is the ultimate seasonal amenity, but running the pool and keeping it safe and clean for residents comes with its own set of headaches. It's an annual expense that regularly requires maintenance and repair, demands a lot of oversight and management, and can generate code violations. Lifeguards often don't show up for work, and finding replacements on short notice can be virtually impossible. Even worse, sometimes no one wants to go swimming.

"It's one of those amenities that falls in the same category as fireplaces," says Alvin Wasserman, director of Fairfield Property Services, whose firm manages about 20 properties with pools. "Everyone wants one, but they don't get frequent use."

From the outer reaches of Long Island and Westchester to the heart of Manhattan, there are plenty of buildings with swimming pools, and plenty of firms out there who will help you operate and staff them. Typically, Manhattan swimming pools tend to be indoors and combined with the building's health club, so running the pool is a year-round operation. For outer-borough buildings, pools are often an outdoor, seasonal operation and, therefore, require more effort. The work starts in the spring, when the pool is prepped to open for the swimming season (usually from just before Memorial Day through Labor Day) and runs through the fall. The pool is drained, cleaned, and covered for the winter months.

In both types of pools, most buildings tend to hire a turnkey pool management company handling the operations. These firms offer an all-in-one approach to pool management, taking care of everything: hiring qualified lifeguards, making sure the chemicals in the water are properly balanced, maintaining the pool regularly, and keeping the facility up to regulatory standards. But it's an expensive service for what amounts to a seasonal amenity: pool management contracts typically run anywhere from $16,000 to $25,000 per season for an all-inclusive package. That doesn't mean it's impossible to self-manage. But it's certainly a lot more work for a board and a property manager that don't necessarily have time to organize work schedules for lifeguards, much less worry about chlorine balance and water filters.

New York State health codes require that every facility have a Certified Pool Operator (CPO) involved. Pool management companies assume this role. But a building staff member, board member, or property manager can get certified by completing the New York State Department of Health Water Treatment Plant Operator Certification Course Type A or B, or an approved course like the National Swimming Pool Foundation's CPO seminar. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has its own requirements for city pool operators and runs a swimming pool technology class that's offered several times a year. To get a copy of the city's regulations, call the Department of Health at (212) 676-1520.

Which facilities require lifeguards? In the city, those operated by condos and co-ops have to have one on duty whenever the pool is open. In the rest of the state, swimming pools defined as "homeowner" pools - those operated and used exclusively by condos, cooperatives, or homeowner associations (HOA) - are not actually required by law to have a lifeguard on duty. These pools can be granted an exemption from the supervision requirements if the deed, offering plan, or certificate of incorporation is provided to the appropriate board of health. But most buildings and pool management companies recommend having a lifeguard on duty, just in case of an accident.

Turnkey management companies save boards and property managers from having to sweat the details of pool operation themselves. "We staff [the pools] and make sure the people are certified pool operators. We usually troubleshoot any problems that come up," says Steve Mogck, director of operations at Iowa Sports Management, a Manhattan-based pool and health club management company. Maintenance-wise, firms like Iowa cover "all the basic tasks, from keeping the chlorine levels at a regulated standard to backwashing and making sure the system is working properly. If there's a problem, I call the client and say, 'Look, it's going to cost x amount of dollars to fix.'"

Before soliciting bids, boards should try to set some general policies, principally the hours of operation. The total weekly hours of lifeguard coverage and the number of lifeguards covering the pool will have the biggest impact on the operational costs.

"Usually, during the season they're open every day," Wasserman says, noting that each of his properties sets hours differently. "How much use it gets and how available they want to make that amenity to the owners varies from community to community."

The price difference between the management bids typically depends on the staffing levels and amount of supervision the lifeguards will have. Even pool management companies have problems with lifeguards not showing up for their shifts in the dog days of summer, so it's important that the company can provide backup lifeguards on call.

"Proper service means a supervisor for the lifeguard is at the pool frequently, maybe even daily," adds Wasserman. "The level of supervision and the availability of lifeguards is what you're paying for."

One particular item boards should look for in the contracts is a section on violations. Make sure that the pool management company is responsible for knowing what the violations are and steering clear of them. In the event of a ticket, the pool management company should be responsible for clearing problems up and paying any fines.

At Hidden Ponds, a 300-unit, 56-acre HOA in Smithtown, Long Island, hiring a reliable pool management company is an essential part of the summer. "It's a little costly to have a pool management company," says Bill Handworth, the HOA board president, "but it pays for itself in peace of mind." He says that American Leisure, the pool manager, is responsible for hiring and supervising all the lifeguards and, most importantly, finding a replacement when someone calls in sick. The firm currently has a three-year contract with the complex which, Handworth says, takes away the worry of having to scramble to hire a pool company every year. It costs the complex about $25,000 per season for all-inclusive service: lifeguards, maintenance, opening and closing the pool, and anything else involved in the operation.

On top of the basics, American Leisure offers its clients extras such as events programming and swim lessons. "What we try to do is make the swimming pool a focal point of the community," says Terri Wiezycki, executive vice president. "It becomes a part of the lifestyle where they get to interact and meet their neighbors, instead of everyone just keeping to themselves."

In the pool management contracts, Wiezycki says that the costs of the water treatment chemicals and the seasonal pool prep (shutting it down for the winter and opening it up for the summer) don't fluctuate very much. What changes the prices are the extras like event programming, the number of days the pool will be open during the season, and the labor needed to staff the pool.

Some buildings even request that the lifeguards be 21 years of age or older. Hiring talented, experienced lifeguards can be tough, she says, especially when competing against the city pools and Long Island water parks. Adds Wiezycki, "That has been our greatest challenge: finding personnel to deliver the services."

There's always the option of saving on management fees and running the pool internally. "It's a less expensive alternative but certainly one that gives you a lot more responsibility," says Terry Borg, the manager who sometimes spends his summer days chasing down AWOL lifeguards. At Hempstead Gardens, the superintendent is the CPO and oversees the chemical balance in the pool. Borg himself does the hiring of the lifeguards, noting "a property manager with one or two pools doesn't have the resources for personnel that a pool company may have if the lifeguard calls in sick." To recover some of the costs, the co-op charges a $30 fee to those residents who want to purchase a seasonal pool permit.

Borg and Kaled do not get any extra fees for assisting in the pool management. But Borg says that the self-management route saves the co-op money dramatically. He estimates that running the pool in-house costs the co-op around $8,000, or about half of some of the bids he's received in the past from the pool management companies.

Joanne Bohme, the vice president at Hempstead Gardens, is the board member responsible for working with Borg to run the pool. She says that staffing lifeguards is the number one source of headaches but, otherwise, the building doesn't have any problems running the facility.

"The cost to us was just not feasible. It was much less expensive to just hire a lifeguard on our own," she says. On top of staffing the pool, Bohme says the board also sets the facility's operating hours and distributes passes to the shareholders and residents. The passes are designed to ensure that only residents and their guests (two for renters, six for shareholders) who have paid the fee are granted access to the pool. "Once we hand out the passes at the annual meeting, it's pretty smooth sailing," she says.

If your board is considering self-management of a pool, work with the property manager to put together a plan of action. You'll still need to hire a professional firm for opening and closing the facility at the beginning and end of the season, and a pool cleaner to keep things nice throughout the summer. Make sure that your super or property manager is a CPO and, then, try and figure out if there's a good supply of willing, reliable, and available lifeguards in your area. "Some boards get involved. They hire the lifeguards; they take that responsibility but also assume a liability that perhaps they shouldn't," Wasserman says. "It becomes a risk versus cost decision - although they may save a few dollars, they're assuming greater risk." The risk is if something goes wrong. If there's an accident and the board is responsible for operating the pool, there's a significant exposure.

A pool is certainly a great selling point for prospective purchasers. Boards that are concerned about attendance and usage can try a variety of things to generate interest. Organize a lap-swimming group for those who are interested in regular exercise, or designate one afternoon a week for family swimming. Perhaps the pool management company can provide an aquatics exercise instructor to teach a few introductory classes at the beginning of the season. Even if the crowds are slow in early June, just wait. Once school lets out and those scorchers start rolling in, finding a good sun chair will be like finding a parking spot in midtown.


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