By Brenda Flanagan
“When I say, ‘Kids, we go to the pool!’ They say, ‘Yeah, Mommy! Let’s go!’” said Exen Picado.
But kids in Paterson will get just three more weeks to splash in the city’s two municipal pools because on Aug. 12, the cash-strapped city council’s pulling the plug on its summer rec program — to save an estimated $200,000 — by closing 36 summer camps and leaving 3,000 kids high and dry through Labor Day.
“In my opinion, it’s not good for the kids, you know?” said Picado.
“It’d be a real bummer because there’s no time you can get out the house and have fun and do stuff,” said her son Christopher Chavarris.
“I’m really upset. Really, really upset. But, you know, there’s not much we can do,” said Camp Counselor Tiffany Alexander.
Recreation officials realize Paterson’s fiscal situation’s been circling the drain for months but as city streets sizzle under a so-called “heat dome” — sending daily highs upwards of 90 degrees — they warn, opportunities dwindle for kids without air conditioning to escape the punishing temperatures.
“This is our Seaside Heights, our Point Pleasant, our Bear Mountain. A lot of our residents would not have the opportunity to fly to Disney or Acapulco for the summer. This is it for them,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, joint recreation director of Paterson Public Schools.
“This pool right here is an essential part of the recreation program. To take it away would just be wrong,” said Kevin Womble, director of Totowa Oval Campsite, Paterson Recreation Program.
Critics also call cutting rec programs “short-sighted” because kids bouncing around in a pool or sprinklers — under the watchful eye of camp counselors — aren’t hanging on street corners or prying open hydrants.
“We do not have anything in place that’s going to make sure our fire hydrants will be protected if it’s 97 degrees. Traditionally in urban centers, the kids would go out and they would crack those fire hydrants to stay cool,” said Wimberly.
“Paterson’s not the safest place to be on the streets — even for these younger kids, you know?” said Camp Counselor Tyree Etienne. “Keeps them out of trouble. Keeps the counselors that are young teens off the streets, as well. Gives them jobs.”
Trenton’s city pools also closed briefly when lifeguards walked off the job after not getting paid. Faced with cash flow problems, Trenton is canceling its contract with a new Georgia-based pool manager and hiring its old manager — the YMCA — to avoid closures.
“It’d be hard because I can’t go take my kids to the beach or nothing like that. This is something convenient here,” said Trenton resident Sylvia Rivera.
Ironically, it’ll have to pay the Y more money because it staffs twice as many lifeguards. Back in Paterson, pool advocates will try to stay afloat.
“You don’t go at low-hanging fruit when you come do budget cuts. You have to be considerate,” Wimberly said.
Paterson’s city council meets again Tuesday. Wimberly says even as it struggles to keep its head above water, financially, they need to throw a lifeline to the local pools and these kids.