Apodaca: Time to rescue the lifeguards

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.

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.

What's more, to date, Newport Beach's proposals to deal with its projected budget shortfall and rising pension costs have looked moderate in comparison with Costa Mesa's brazenness in issuing layoff notices to nearly half that city's staff.

Perhaps that's why there was little public outcry when Kiff announced earlier this month that Newport Beach might lay off 25 works and eliminate 30 vacant positions.

But the lifeguard cuts are a step too far and a savvy manager like Kiff should have known that.

Aside from the obvious safety concerns, slashing the lifeguard staff is terrible public relations, particularly at a time when the city is building the grandiose new Civic Center at an estimated cost of at least $125 million. Council members would probably argue that the construction project, which is being financed through the sale of bonds, is an entirely separate issue from decisions on staffing levels.

Nonetheless, the city will be on the hook for at least some of the financing costs for the Civic Center. Council members can't be immune to the likelihood that they'll be accused of callousness of the worst order if they jettison the very workers who give Newport Beach its good name while they continue building themselves flashy new digs.

Kiff, too, should be sensitive to public perceptions, considering that his salary and benefits package costs the city nearly $300,000 annually. And in 2009, the city paid more than $470,000 to help Kiff buy a house in Newport Beach. Council members justified the move as "an investment."

I have no problem with Kiff being fairly compensated for the important job he performs. But now the council needs to look at our lifeguards as an investment.

They're an investment in our safety, our desirability as a tourist destination, and in our sense of identity. They're an investment in the prudent and ethical management of our town's greatest asset.

Newport Beach has earned a well-deserved reputation for its beauty, blissful weather, luxurious lifestyle and welcoming atmosphere. A key element to that image is the relative security of our beaches. We compromise that at our own peril.

Cutting back our permanent lifeguard force is a bad idea. It should be dead in the water, with a big "Do Not Resuscitate" order attached.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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