Los Angeles County supervisors are about to decide whether to relinquish maintenance and lifeguard operations at dozens of city- and state-owned beaches, an action that opponents say could jeopardize public safety and have a devastating impact on one of Southern California's most important recreational and tourist resources.
The Board of Supervisors will decide today whether to discontinue services at seven state beaches--including Malibu and Manhattan--as early as this month and whether to send one-year termination notices to cities including Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Hermosa Beach to end operations at some of the most popular beaches in the state.
The cash-strapped county insists that the state and cities must significantly increase their share of beach-related costs. Many local officials are just as adamant in arguing that beaches are used by residents throughout the county and are a regional responsibility.
Caught in the middle are lifeguards and, some say, the people who visit local beaches, as 60 million did last year. Of that number, there were more than 10,000 rescues and only two drownings. Those opposed to the county proposal contend that the number of drownings is likely to rise if the county withdraws its centralized oversight and local jurisdictions must provide their own services.
Many beach supporters say it would be disastrous to return to the days when city, county and state lifeguards might patrol the beaches within yards of one another in an uncoordinated system that left authorities and residents confused.
"That would be an intolerable situation that we can't live with," said Don Knabe, chief deputy to Supervisor Deane Dana.
There is also a concern that neither the state nor cities would be able to maintain the same staffing levels among lifeguards and maintenance crews and that the quality of experience and expertise might fall.
State lifeguards, for example, mostly patrol rural beaches and are unused to the demands and tensions of an urban population, local officials say. Also, unlike state and city lifeguards, all county lifeguards are trained emergency medical technicians and are part of the 911 emergency system.
John Duggan, an administrative analyst with the city of Los Angeles, said city officials have not decided what they will do if the county terminates its services.
The city contracts with the county to provide services at city-owned Cabrillo and Venice beaches as well as the state-owned Dockweiler and Will Rogers beaches, at an annual cost of about $8 million. More than half of the costs are recouped by the county through beach parking and concession fees. But the county contributes about $3.7 million in general funds.
The county funds about 85% of the $5.2 million it costs to provide services at seven state-owned beaches, including Las Tunas, Point Dume, Dan Blocker and Malibu and 98% of the $1.4 million it costs to service city-owned Hermosa Beach.
But Los Angeles, other cities and the state have made few offers to reduce the county's burden.
"The City Council has indicated that these are regional facilities that have an attraction far beyond Los Angeles and that it is not inappropriate to have the county tax base make a contribution," Duggan said.
Other city officials argue that their residents already pay more than their share in taxes and other subsidies to support beach services. But county officials, faced with a continuing fiscal crisis, say a better arrangement must be reached.
"We should try in every way we can to keep the present system going, but at the same time we need to have the cities come to the table with the idea that they have to make a greater contribution," Supervisor Ed Edelman said.
Virtually all sides agree that Los Angeles County has developed a level of service that has made Southern California beaches among the safest in the world. The county's 109 lifeguards patrol 19 beaches, which cover 879 acres along 71 miles of coastline from San Pedro to Ventura County.
If the county severs its contract with the state, 50 of the lifeguards would be laid off, said Jim Boulgarides, secretary of the Los Angeles County Lifeguards Assn. The group held a news conference Wednesday afternoon to decry the county's possible action.
"Obviously it is the public who loses the most in this situation," Boulgarides said. "I can't say we're going to have hundreds of more people drowning but my gut feeling is there are going to be more drownings. Even if you have eight or nine drownings a year that's a lot of suffering."