A city runs on volunteer power

May 16, 2012

On a May evening, the Pinole Seals Swim Club hits the water for their first night of practice in the season that almost wasn’t. This is a popular pool that Pinole resident Kiki Kaski says hundreds of people use every year.

“All the camps in the area send their kids to this pool, the YMCA, Special Olympics uses this pool,” says Kaski. “You go there and you get this feeling like, ‘It’s summer!’ And it feels good.”

That feeling of summer costs about $65,000 a year to maintain. Right now, that’s money that the city doesn’t have. So last fall, when the Pinole City Council was looking for ways to balance this year’s budget, cutting the swim center was on the list.

“And I just thought, ‘Och, it would be the worst thing ever if that pool closed!’” says Kaski. “So that’s why I really wanted to get involved.”

Kaski did get involved – along with dozens of others – to organize, raise funds, and keep the pool open. As of April, they’d raised most of what they needed. The City Council agreed to kick in the balance, and the pool opened for another season.

On the other side of town, at the Pinole Senior Center, a volunteer is running a beanbag baseball game. In the kitchen, five or six other volunteers cut vegetables for the midday meal. Volunteers also staff the front desk, run pledge drives, and organize monthly “big band” dances.

In total, about 200 volunteers more or less run the Senior Center. Amy Wooldridge just ended eight years as the Pinole Recreation Director. “For a senior center that has 1,400 members, we only have a little more than one-and-a-half paid coordinators, and it’s really because of the volunteers. You know, our staff, we joke that we’re support to the volunteers – we’re there to help them do what they do best,” says Woolridge.

The Pinole Recreation Department oversees the Swim Center and Senior Center. Five years ago, it covered more than half its expenses through class fees and donations – the city budget paid the other 45 percent. But last year, it got just five percent of its budget from city coffers. This year, it won’t get any. Instead, the entire $1.4-million recreation budget, including staff salaries and benefits, will be covered by fees, donations and fundraising.

Other departments in Pinole have also felt the pinch. The Fire Department had to close one of its two fire stations. Volunteers regularly fill in at the front desk of the Police Department, where two records clerks do the work that three used to do.

The city can’t pay to staff the community TV station full time any more – which has city council members worried that people won’t be able to watch meetings. And at at least one elementary school, volunteer drama teacher Anna Smith handles 400 students over the course of three days each week, all for free.

In Pinole, volunteerism seems a way of life. Take the Swim Center, for example. When they heard it was going to close, they turned out in droves to raise money to keep it open.

“Our first event was a garage sale, and I’ve never raised two grand at a garage sale before, but it seems that the donations were just flowing in,” recalls Kiki Kaski. “My garage was full within a couple of weeks of taking donations from all of our neighbors and all of our friends and friends of friends and the parents of the kids at Ellerhorst Elementary, and.... Everybody just showed up.

Ivette Ricco, another Swim Center volunteer, says the work isn’t over. “One of the suggestions is that we do a bicycle fundraiser, a ‘Tour de Pinole’, because it’s a great location for people to ride their bicycles,” says Ricco. “If we can create a really good, major event like this that everyone throughout the Bay Area can attend, we can rely on that money, we can sustain that, we can say to the city council, “Look at this. We’re not going to have to come back every single year, begging for money. We think we can do this on our own.”

In that sense, Pinole is unique in the region. In nearby Albany – about the same size of Pinole – the city uses volunteers mostly to help with setting up, staffing, and breaking down one-day special events. Volunteers help out in the schools and in coaching youth sports, but they don’t fill official city positions.

But is the level of volunteer effort in Pinole sustainable? Phil Green, a Pinole city councilmember, doubts it. “I think in the long haul, you have to have some type of funding, because fundraisers, you get some of them that can run, can fundraise for a year or two years, but pretty soon they start to say, ‘Hey, you know, we’re getting a little tired of this,’” says Green.

Phil Green would like to find other ways for the city to support itself, and to fund the activities Pinole citizens want. One idea he has is to redirect franchise fees from big companies like Comcast and AT&T. Right now city officials decide where that money gets spent. Green thinks that should change.

“What I’m trying to do is say that, you know, maybe we the citizens, as well as the Council, start to direct some of that money to go to certain things that we as a city actually need; that we feel that’s very important,” says Green. He adds that he appreciates the work volunteers do to cover costs, “but to lay the whole burden on them is a little bit unfair.”

Still, volunteers  like Ivette Ricco are dedicated. “I’d like to live in a community that everyone feels they are really a part of something important, and that they can work together,” Ricco says, “because too often there are multiple reasons to not work together and polarization, so anytime I can do something that makes the community more of a community, that’s what I get out of it.”