By Bill Oakey – May 25, 2016
This is the time of year for congratulating all kinds of citizens. Students are graduating, many of them with honors and distinctions, from high schools and colleges across Central Texas. Very soon, the June wedding season will begin, with beaming grooms and smiling brides celebrating and being congratulated by their families and friends.
For all of those reasons, I am very disappointed that May 2016 just happens to be the time when Travis County receives the very first “downer” award from this blog. We sometimes hear sour notes in music, and awards can be given for negative recognition. So, today we announce an un-congratulatory, “Unaffordability Award” for Travis County.*
The Hamilton Pool Reservation Fee Fiasco – A Fantastical Foray Into Fiscal Foolishness
As of May 15, the Travis County Parks Department began charging a $10.00 advance reservation fee to get into Hamilton Pool Preserve. The fee can only be paid online and only with a credit card. There is a mandatory $1.00 surcharge for the credit card, so the fee is actually $11.00. None of it is refundable under any circumstances. And once you make the reservation, you cannot change the date. I suppose that pools need rules, but who were the fools who came up with such an unfriendly and inflexible system? I did find one section of the website that states that you can change your reservation (but you still can’t get a refund) if rain causes the pool to be closed on your reservation date. If you are a tourist and don’t plan to come back anytime soon, I guess you just eat the $11.00 fee.
Is There Another Fee to Pay When You Get to the Pool?
Of course. This one is $15 per vehicle. And the reservation fee does not count towards the second fee. So, your total cost comes to $26.00. The double-pack of fees remains in effect through September 30th. County officials did articulate a reason for these policy changes. Hamilton Pool is just “getting too popular around the globe.” So, the reservation system protects the public from driving 30 miles from Austin, only to discover that there is a long line of cars waiting to get in. County Parks staff have been spending too many hours and costly resources handling the traffic in recent years. But their solution leaves a lot of questions, not the least of which is this one:
Does Your Family “Belong” at Hamilton Pool? – Apparently Not, If You Are Low-Income
In these modern days of $300 massages and $150 breakfasts at some downtown hotels during Formula One, $26 in fees to get into Hamilton Pool may not sound like a big deal. But let’s not forget that Travis County has a very high poverty rate, and a heck of a lot of families who struggle with low wages, high rent and other affordability issues. For a special occasion, some of those families may want to visit Hamilton Pool. Travis County does an admirable job on affordable housing initiatives and they continue to explore new options in that area. But somewhere, somehow, somebody simply dropped the ball on this Hamilton Pool fee fiasco.
How Much Extra Parks Revenue Could Travis County Get From the New Fees This Year?
$127,175.00, according to the Austin Monitor.
A Simple Solution
The crux of the pool problem seems to be overcrowding and not enough room for parking. The Texas Governor’s Mansion uses a simple reservation process, and it’s free. As for Hamilton Pool, it seems like it would make sense to charge only one fee, and let visitors pay it online in advance. That’s what people do every day when they pay for concerts and zillions of other special events. Modern computer systems are capable of handling reservation date changes. A family with a medical emergency or any other reason should not have to swallow the fee and pay it again later. Since the upfront cost would be higher under this arrangement, the County might want to rethink the refund policy. Perhaps they could charge a small processing fee to do a refund. Retailers and restaurants do it all the time with credit card payments, usually without an extra charge.
A More Cost-Effective Process Should Result In Lower Fees, Not Higher Ones
Travis County should be able to run a few cost analysis scenarios and come up with a payment method that is far simpler and more affordable than the one that took effect on May 15th. In fact, since the new system would be automated and fewer Parks staff would be needed to handle the smaller influx of cars, the visitor fee should be lower than last year’s, not higher. Hamilton pool should be financially accessible to all Travis County residents.
* Fine Print: “Downer” awards from this blog can be rescinded. No application, no website registration, and no fee is required. Once the public officials fix the problem that earned them the award, the blog will rescind it. The original posting will remain in the blog archives, along with an update noting when the award was rescinded.
Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:
“The Unbirthday Song” – From “Alice In Wonderland”