Newport considers outsourcing lifeguard services

Newport Beach is looking into outsourcing lifeguard services on one of its busiest stretches of coastline.

City staff will be accepting proposals this month from groups interested in patrolling Corona del Mar State Beach, which is currently watched over by city lifeguards — some of whom have already objected to the idea.

The possible change is part of an ongoing exploration of ways the city can control looming pension costs.

"It's a chance to see what proposals are out there," City Manager Dave Kiff said. "Our goal is to try to do things as efficiently as possible with the same quality of service."

No one is expected to be laid off from Newport Beach's full-time lifeguard staff of about 13. Instead, that number could shrink from attrition as the city outsources positions instead of hiring replacements for retirees, Kiff said.

The Lifeguard Management Assn., which represents the full-time Newport Beach lifeguards, did not return an email seeking comment about the possible change, but a union representative for the city's seasonal lifeguards said his members will end up being the casualties from the cost-cutting attempt.

Each year during the summer, the city hires between 150 and 200 part-time lifeguards to staff the beaches.

"To me this is an assault on our community," said Chris Graham, who leads the Assn. of Newport Beach Ocean Lifeguards and works the beaches himself about 10 days a year.

About 10% of the seasonal hires patrol the beach at Corona del Mar, a responsibility that Graham argued should be left to city employees.

"Our lifeguards are the ambassadors of the city," he said, adding that many of the seasonal guards are local high school or college students who would have no guarantee of being hired by an outside contractor.

The outsourcing strategy is part of a larger push in Newport to monitor budgets long-term.

In the 2013-14 fiscal year, lifeguard services took up about $4 million of the Fire Department's $37-million budget.

A typical full-time Newport Beach lifeguard captain makes between $94,000 and $99,000 annually, Kiff said in an email, but the city must also contribute an additional $52,000 to $55,000 on top of that to cover expected future pension costs. The lifeguard captain contributes about $8,500 a year.

Part-time lifeguards receive hourly pay based on experience and typically don't receive pensions, Graham said.

"The lifeguards are not the bad guys here. The pension system and its costs is the problem," Kiff wrote.

The city needs to consider what it could save by outsourcing any city service to help pay for pensions Newport already owes, according to the city manager. City staff have already considered outsourcing jails and making changes to the emergency dispatch service, but decided against it.

The City Council most recently voted to transfer responsibility for its trash pickup services from municipal employees to Stanton-based CR&R; Waste Services.

"We're trying to do our best to get our hands around this pension issue," said Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, who represents District 6, which includes Corona del Mar.

The central question, she said, has been: "Are there things that we can save money on that will help us, not today, but down the road?"

The state beach is a prime target for outsourcing because it could most easily be separated from other beaches under the Newport lifeguards' current 6.2-mile oceanfront jurisdiction. A lifeguard headquarters building is also available for possible use by the new group.

The area also lacks good surfing conditions as compared to other beaches and is sparsely populated during the winter, noted Gardner, who represents the area.

Newport's request for contract proposals said about 1.6 million people visit the 1.2-mile stretch of coastline at Corona del Mar.

Over the course of a year at CdM, lifeguards on average rescue about 800 people and respond to about 1,000 calls for medical help.

Proposals from bidders are due Jan. 14. City staff will then review them and make a recommendation to the council accordingly.

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