Bangor residents are urging city officials to raise the hourly wage for municipal lifeguards and use incentives like sign-on bonuses to draw people to the job after a lifeguard shortage forced the city to keep the Dakin Pool closed for at least the start of summer swimming season.
While residents are calling for the city to do more to ensure the Dakin Pool on Bangor’s east side opens this season, there’s also an effort afoot to resurrect a community group that raised money 15 years ago to build a pool house and provide for several years of free admission for kids.
This time around, the fundraising would focus on long-term improvements at the pool and a scholarship fund to draw more students to lifeguard positions in an effort to prevent chronic shortages.
While Bangor’s municipal pool at the Beth Pancoe Aquatic Center off Union Street opened for the summer on Monday and is open every day of the week, the Dakin Pool will remain closed until the city can hire more lifeguards.
The hourly wage for a city lifeguard ranges from $12.75, Maine’s minimum wage, to $14.40.
Resident Kim Livingstone asked the city on Monday night to recognize the responsibilities that come with being a lifeguard warrant an hourly pay rate above minimum wage.
“It’s a lot of pressure to be a lifeguard at Pancoe,” Livingstone said. “You can make more than $12 an hour flipping burgers at McDonald’s, and that’s not a job where you’re responsible for saving someone’s life.”
Earlier this month, Tracy Willette, Bangor’s parks and recreation director, said he had about 15 lifeguards to work at the city’s two pools this summer but needed 25 to 30 to fully staff them. Other pools in Maine are also struggling to recruit lifeguards.
At the city’s Dakin Pool, three guards usually monitor the pool while one oversees the pool house.
Six guards monitor the Beth Pancoe Aquatic Center’s pool with an additional lifeguard stationed at the top of the waterslides and another in the pool house.
City Council Chair Rick Fournier said the city is in no way considering closing the Dakin Pool for good. It is only delaying the pool’s opening until enough lifeguards are hired to safely supervise swimmers, he said.
The city chose to keep the Dakin Pool closed because it has less capacity and parking and lower average attendance than the Pancoe pool, City Manager Debbie Laurie said.
The Pancoe pool can accommodate 350 swimmers while Dakin has a capacity of about 150 people.
Laurie said the city can’t use the $20.5 million it received from the federal government for COVID relief to increase wages or add incentives for lifeguards, though it could be used for “job training.”
Bangor Parks and Recreation already reimburses lifeguards the cost of the Bangor Region YMCA’s $315 certification course if someone takes it, passes, then works at a municipal pool, Willette said.
Willette said the parks and recreation department has attended job fairs at Bangor and Brewer high schools as well as Husson University, but those efforts didn’t yield many lifeguards.
“What we’re finding is there’s just not the level of interest in becoming a lifeguard that there once was, even among swimmers,” he said.
In addition to recommending raising wages as a short-term solution, state Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, announced that residents are re-establishing Friends of Dakin Pool, a community fundraising group, to make long-term permanent improvements to the pool.
The group plans to raise money to create scholarships for lifeguards to help draw more students to the position and avoid chronic lifeguard shortages.
The funds will also ensure children can enter the pool for free. Baldacci said the money raised will also fund improvements to the pool in the coming years, which could range from enlarging it to adding other recreational features.
Fifteen years ago, the Friends of Dakin Pool, which boasted hundreds of members, raised about $150,000 over seven months to construct a new pool house and provide for eight years of free admission for children, said group member Mike Robinson. The organization held a few spaghetti dinners to raise money and received large donations from L.L. Bean, Bangor Savings Bank and Stephen King.
“Fifteen years later, I didn’t expect to be in this situation now where it’s in danger of not continuing after the effort we made and the love the East Side has for that pool,” Robinson said.
Having both of the city’s pools open is important because it gives children on both sides of the city a place to spend their summer, Baldacci said.
“The Pancoe Pool is very nice, but Bangor is a city of over 30,000 people,” he said. “The Dakin Pool is more of a neighborhood pool that means a lot to people on the east side.”