Donnie Hayes, director of Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation, made his initial budget presentation to the borough’s parks and recreation commission Monday, highlighting a need for staff and specific equipment going into the next fiscal year.
Hayes told the commission the budget recommendation was just the first step in the upcoming budget cycle.
“With this, we will meet with the mayor in December to discuss overall additions, especially when it comes to staffing,” Hayes said. More detailed planning starts in February prior to submitting materials to the borough assembly.
Specifically, Hayes proposed hiring a park planner, a recreational specialist for Birch Hill, a trails crew leader and converting some seasonal specialists into a permanent part-time positions. Hayes said a park planner would help update the borough’s 30-year-old comprehensive plan and manage the department’s various master plans, public outreach for capital projects and zoning concerns.
“We really need someone who will also focus on the growth we’re seeing in Salcha and North Pole,” Hayes said. “We also have a huge equity issue … if you look at a map of Fairbanks versus North Pole, you will see a very small amount of parks and playgrounds in North Pole and Salcha.”
The planner would also oversee any Americans with Disabilities Act concerns.
The Birch Hill recreation specialist would serve as an additional person to the site’s sole permanent employee and provide evening service. Hayes said Birch Hill gets about 180,000 visitors a year, the bulk during the winter.
“This position would be someone who creates programs for Birch Hill and generates more revenue,” Hayes said.
Other requests include a front-end loader and a Zamboni for the North Pole ice rink as the current one ends its functional life. Funding would come from the borough’s Vehicle and Equipment Fleet Fund. The front loader would help with snow removal for Pioneer Park and the Carlson Center parking lots in the winter, on top of moving heavy items such as pallets, stage ramps and dasher boards. Hayes also requested a $150,000 fund to secure concerts for the Carlson Center.
Hayes said the entire cost estimate would be around $600,000, or an 8% increase to his budget.
Hayes noted his department has about 100 permanent and temporary positions to help cover an extensive portfolio of recreational facilities, about half the staff to comparable communities.
“We do a lot with very few folks,” Hayes said.
But workforce shortages are taking its toll, like other departments.
“My managers and myself would love to have a full staff,” Hayes said. “We are scared to death of the number of overtime hours that are having to ask our staff to do to make up for the people we don’t have.”
Hayes said overtime pay for his department’s permanent staff has tripled since 2019.
“We’re afraid that we’re only digging ourselves a deeper hole because the staff that don’t want to work those overtime hours are going to say ‘Sorry, we’re done,’” Hayes said.
Hayes said if that were to happen, “We’d really have to start closing down facilities, and that’s something we really don’t want.”
A larger issue revolves around seasonal or temporary workers — about 60% went unfilled. Pioneer Park, for example, only had one seasonal laborer this summer, compared to a normal six.
Hayes said his department provided “significant raises” to temp positions this summer, such as raising hourly laborer wages from $15 to $18.
“We actually saw less people apply for those positions than the year previous,” Hayes said.
To address the issue, Hayes proposes adding a $500 signing bonus to seasonal workers after one month, on top of the current $500 bonus paid after workers completed either summer or six months of work.
Another proposed solution involves making some seasonal part-time positions permanent. Currently, seasonal employees are let go after they accrue 1,040 hours and can’t be hired until the next year.
“Right now, we have temporary staff on the books who are more than willing to work year round part time if they weren’t stuck,” Hayes said. Converting temp spots to permanent would require assembly approval.
Some noticeable impacts
The Big Dipper lacks 10 temporary staff. The borough’s aquatics staff are down six full-time and five temporary positions.
When asked whether parks and recreation reaches out to high schools, Hayes said his department participates in all the job fairs and speaks with the counselors.
To offset service disruptions at the Big Dipper, the department’s maintenance staff have focused on the facility after being pulled from winter trail maintenance. Overall, Hayes said the biggest priority is to focus on the largest needs.
But it’s causing concerns, he added.
“Our staff are at the point where they are stretched to the end of their rope, so they are trying to hustle to meet the deadlines we have for events,” Hayes said. “Mistakes are happening, injuries are happening. We’re thankful nothing major has happened, but we are talking to our staff about concerns because it’s serious.”
Commissioners generally agreed with the recommendations, but added whether they should include language to back up the requests given the new borough assembly’s conservative makeup.
“I think we can do that by putting with this proposal the recommendations that were discussed about why these are essential needs,” said Ben Roth, the commission’s vice chair. “We can ask for more money but be conservative in the sense that we can convince them that these are needs that have been existing for some time and resolve standing issues.”
Roth added it would be the assembly’s decision on “whether they agree with the director’s recommendations.”
Hayes added that during his budget conversations with his managers, several topics were ruled out.
“I don’t think anyone walked away from that meeting happy, but we also understood where we were at,” Hayes said. “I’m still nervous about taking this [budget request] to the assembly, but right now these are the hotspots that we are struggling with, and if we don’t address them real soon, I’m going to have bigger issues.”