Budget opposition turns to lifeguard training, swim programs

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Now that the City Council has promised to maintain operating hours at libraries and recreation centers, the focus on the proposed budget for the next fiscal year has turned to lifeguard training and municipal aquatics programs.

Residents and lifeguards who attended a special night council meeting urged restoration of funding for training, which was cut more than one year ago to save nearly $1 million.

Training “goes hand-in-hand with our success or failure while on duty,” said Jeff Hatfield, who was the lifeguard training coordinator before the funding cut.

Other lifeguards said they need to train constantly to maintain their skills, and that the small amount of training that remained was computer-based, not lifelike simulations.

Mayor Jerry Sanders cut eight jobs of lifeguards — who are in the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department — to save $973,000 in a mid-year budget adjustment in the 2010 fiscal year. The biggest impact was on training, according to the city's Independent Budget Analyst.

Lifeguard officials estimate they need, at minimum, an additional $540,000 to restore training programs to previous levels.

For the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, Sanders proposed halving the operating hours of libraries and recreation centers to help close a $73.2 million shortfall, but found no support on the City Council. Members of the panel said they would choose from a variety of funding options to keep the facilities open.

Many of more than one hour's worth of public speakers also asked council members to spare the city's pools and aquatics programs from spending cuts.

The proposed recreation spending reductions include eliminating swimming programs during non-summer months.

“If the pools close, where will we go?” asked Alberto Gonzalez, a teenager on a swim team at a city pool. “Our pools have become our lives. Please don't take them away from us.”

Ed Harris, of the lifeguards union, told council members that aquatics programs serve as an important feeder into the lifeguard service.

Among the ideas being floated to augment the lifeguard budget is to sell advertising at the beaches.

Councilman Kevin Faulconer said the city would not construct large billboards, but could place messages on lifeguard towers or trash cans. He said residents expressed support if revenues were used for lifeguard programs.

Council President Tony Young pointed out the sponsorship proposal first came up 18 months ago, but Chief Financial Officer Mary Lewis responded that the person in the mayor's office responsible for marketing left her job, and that the replacement only recently took over. She also said they were awaiting legal advice from the City Attorney's Office on a law about signs.

Councilman Carl DeMaio said “heads would roll” at a private company if it took so long to start something that could lead to $5 million in annual revenue.

“We as a council have been eager to implement marketing partnerships and we've been frustrated by a glacial pace (by the mayor's office),” DeMaio said.

The City Council took no action tonight, but the final budget will require the body's approval.

Categories: KUSI