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Lifeguards in hot water

Guardians of Newport's beaches battle public misconceptions about their profession amidst debate about their compensation and pensions.

June 10, 2011|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com

He was one of the council members who voted in 2007 to raise lifeguard pensions to be in line with firefighters and police officers. Now, he says, such plans are no longer sustainable.

Recruiting top talent

Because of their solid compensation packages, many public agencies can attract college-educated guards.

Selna recently transferred from Bolsa Chica and Huntington state beaches to Crystal Cove. All are in the California State Parks system.

Unlike most municipal guards in California, state park guards carry guns, badges and perform many of the same duties as police officers. They qualify for a 3% at 50 public safety pension, but their take-home pay is less than most local California agencies.

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State lifeguards-peace officers are paid about $40,000 at the entry level, and can make up to $88,000 as supervisors.

Selna chose guarding for his career partially because of the pension, he says, and because he was hooked on the outdoors after 14 years of summer guarding.

"A lot of these lifeguards are talented people … They just love the ocean environment," he says. "They could easily go walk away and do something else."

Attracting college grads with generous pensions is worth it, says Steven Powell, an L.A. County rescue boat captain.

Full-time guards are often asked to lead complex rescues, manage schedules and draft department policies, says Powell, who is also the county Lifeguard Assn. president.

"We need people that are intelligent, that are self-motivated, that can problem-solve," he adds.

L.A.'s pension plan is less generous than Newport's. L.A. County permanent guards, firefighters and sheriff's deputies have a 2% at 50 formula.

Also, the county guards contribute 10% to 11% of their pensions, while Newport's pay only 3.5%. Kiff and some council members are pushing for guards to contribute 9% of their retirement cost.

Cuts on the horizon

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has endorsed a 401(k)-style plan instead of lifeguard and firefighter pensions, while leaving police with a guaranteed retirement benefit. "America's Finest City" also recently stopped patrolling some its remote stretches, such as Black's Beach between La Jolla and the city of Del Mar.

Huntington Beach city officials, meanwhile, eliminated patrols at Dog Beach and reduced the hours permanent guards patrol during the slow season. Now they stop patrolling at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., instead of midnight, from about October to March.

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