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Lifeguard hiring problems leads to likely closure of Mary Siah pool building

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.

FNSB Assembly Finance Committee votes to close recreation center.

Fairbanks North Star Borough taxpayer dollars pay for most of the borough facilities and services. Every year the Assembly reviews each department in worksessions before a formal debate and public hearing.
The Assembly members have been spending their April Saturdays in hours-long worksessions.

Member Tammie Wilson chairs the Finance Committee:

“ So we're gonna just go right in: Ordinance No. 2023-20, an ordinance Appropriating Funds as Listed for the Fiscal Year Beginning July 1st, 2023.”

Although there’s no formal approval outside an official Assembly meeting, … in these worksessions, members discuss and amend each section of the proposed budget. Departments such as Community Planning, Library Services, Public Works and Assessing were recently analyzed.

“OK. Parks and Recreation.”

At a recent Saturday worksession, member Savannah Fletcher moved to delete the currently-unfilled lifeguard positions at the Mary Siah Recreation Center – effectively closing the building for the fiscal year.

“ Yeah, so this is a tough one. It's for the closure of Mary Siah, which I realize is a really beloved pool by many in the community,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said she made her amendment because there are not enough lifeguards to keep the pool open this summer. But she also saw it as a way to transition to complete closure of the 70-year old building.

“But I think this older facility that we can't even staff right now, that will continue to cost us more and more and more to maintain, is not the smartest use of taxpayer dollars.

The building has needed repairs to maintain minimum safety. A building condition survey in 2018 recommended $6.8 million in repairs, but then-mayor Karl Kassel thought it would be better to replace the building. By 2020, subsequent Assemblies had approved $3 million in repairs. The pool was closed from March of 2020 to April 2021 for structural rehabilitation.

Assembly member Jimi Cash says he supported the renovations two years ago, but supports the elimination of the jobs at Mary Siah now.

“ I was a staunch supporter of Mary Siah and when additional money was needed for the, for those repairs, I voted for it ‘cause I felt the value of that building and that the services that it offers. But at the same time, I'm also seeing that right now we really don't have the staff to run it. So it's sitting there empty most of the time anyhow.”

Parks and Recreation opened the pool for fewer hours in fall, 2021 because there were not enough lifeguards, and then closed the building in January through the summer of 2022.

Parks Superintendent John Haas told the Assembly hiring lifeguards is difficult.

“I think it's just the ongoing problem that we're having with lifeguards in general. We only bring in enough through recruitment to replace the ones who are leaving, and it's been pretty common for the last two and a half years I think,” Haas said.

Mary Siah Rec Center’s minimum staff complement is seven. Fletcher’s amendment would eliminate 3.6 positions, for a savings of $327,580. ($207,590 in salary, $119,990 in benefits.)

It kept the supervisor salary. The Finance Committee passed the amendment 7-2.

Now that the Assembly’s budget worksessions are over, the public hearing for the full budget is scheduled during the regular Assembly meeting on May 4th.

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.