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Apodaca: Time to rescue the lifeguards

April 22, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca

Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff's proposal to cut the lifeguard staff is so wrongheaded it almost makes me nostalgic for the silly debate over a statue of Ronald Reagan that consumed the city just a few months ago.

Kiff's proposed budget for the city includes the reduction of the permanent lifeguard staff from 13 to eight. These are the guards who patrol beaches in the off-season, train about 200 seasonal lifeguards, and handle rescue boat and diving operations.

The rationale for the cutbacks is, of course, that Newport Beach needs to trim spending in this difficult financial environment — the cause of the moment among local municipal governments.

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Kiff has concluded that the lifeguard ranks can take a hit without significantly compromising safety and has even argued — apparently absent any sense of irony — that taxpayers shouldn't "fund the rescue of someone who chooses to go out in the water in the middle of January."

Perhaps Kiff might consider squeezing a few dollars from the budget to pay for "Closed for the Winter" signs to be posted along the city's nine miles of beaches — and by "winter" he means from the end of October until early March.

The lifeguards, naturally, have gone public with their opposition to the plan. They have warned that the proposed staff cuts would severely inhibit their ability to keep watch on our beaches and respond to emergencies.

It would be easy to write the lifeguards' warnings off as mere histrionics motivated by self-interest. But I doubt I'm alone in believing there's little hyperbole in their statements.

The brutal reality is this: If the City Council approves the plan to reduce the lifeguards' ranks, it will only be a matter of time before someone dies in our waters. When that happens, Kiff and the council members will be held accountable for an injudicious decision that exposed beachgoers to added risk.

Indeed, the council is no doubt getting earful from outraged citizens who see Newport Beach's vaunted lifeguard staff as an indispensible ingredient to the city's long-term health and prosperity.

Kiff's proposal is an unusual misstep from an administrator who has generally received high marks for his steadying influence and sound stewardship. With Newport Beach facing a deficit, Kiff wrung savings from the budget and renegotiated public employee union contracts — including an agreement with the lifeguards last year to increase the guards' contributions to their pension plans.

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