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Pool facilities stretched thin

Water aerobics classes are popular at the Mary Siah pool, which is smaller than other FNSB aquatice centers, has warmer water and has greater accessibility.
Courtesy FNSB
Water aerobics classes are popular at the Mary Siah pool, which is smaller than other FNSB aquatice centers, has warmer water and has greater accessibility.

We reported yesterday that there will be no pool programs at the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Mary Siah Recreation Center as of July 1, but that's not exactly true. While the FY 24 budget defunds lifeguard positions for the center’s pool, the Assembly has asked the administration to keep it open.

In the discussion on next year’s budget, the Assembly cut 3.6 full-time lifeguard positions that are currently assigned to Mary Siah Recreation Center, and currently vacant.

Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes says he understands the directive from the Assembly for Hamme, Mary Siah and Westcott Pools.

“Their expectation is for us to keep all three open, but at the same time cut services where we need to, to be able to still keep all three open,” Hayes said.

Assembly member Barbara Haney pressed Borough Mayor Bryce Ward during debate on the budget last week.

“That was what we were told. It would stay the status quo,” Haney said.

Haney said she wanted a clear understanding of how cuts would impact the three borough swimming pools before she voted on the reductions. Ward explained programs would be very limited.

“Mary Siah and Hamme Pool remain open with the schedule that we have currently within our ability. Um, we have challenges now with staffing, with operating those facilities, so that wouldn't necessarily change.”

The status quo is limited hours and programs at the pools. There are some clubs that rent the pools for boating and diving practices, but even those require a staff lifeguard on duty.

Hayes says he is already juggling staff and will do more of it the next fiscal year.

“So what does that look like? We don't know yet. Staff and I are having meetings all this week to be able to start putting pen to paper and trying to figure out exactly what a schedule looks like for Hamme, Mary Siah and Westcott, with the significant decrease in staffing,” Hayes said.

Like many municipalities and private clubs in Alaska, the Parks and Recreation Department has had trouble recruiting lifeguards for the past three years. Some lifeguards are part-time and on-call.

“There are three part-time benefitted positions, and six to eight more “casual” positions which typically equal out to 40 to 50 hours per week.”

Haney says wages might be the problem behind the statewide lifeguard shortage.

“I’m waiting for the salary compensation study to be done. I will be very surprised if, if it doesn't turn out that we're paying our lifeguards a pittance.”

A half-time Lifeguard I position is listed in the mayor’s budget at $24,680. A full-time lifeguard II position was paid $50,300 last year.

All three pools will be open for most of May, but Westcott will close May 22nd and Mary Siah the week after.

Hayes says he wants to make sure people know that’s temporary.

“During the month of June, Mary Siah will be closed for our annual summer closure for our typical summer maintenance programs,” Hayes said.

But that does not mean the facility will be permanently closed.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.