When word came from the state Legislature and Florida voters that tax revenues for local governments would be slashed, government officials were quick to reassure residents that public safety agencies such as police and fire would be protected from level-of-service cuts.
In Clearwater, which has one of the state's most famous beaches, lifeguards make an important contribution to public safety. Yet Clearwater officials, searching for places to trim $6-million to $10-million from the city's budget, are considering wiping out the Clearwater Beach lifeguard program.
What a lousy idea.
Lifeguards have protected the public on Clearwater Beach for decades. Many lives have been saved, from swimmers and boaters who got into trouble to sunbathers who had heart attacks. Ask one of those saved if the $700,000 invested annually in the lifeguard program is worth it.
These lifeguards do more than save lives. They also deliver services, from finding lost children to treating stingray injuries to acting as unofficial tour guides. They also inform people about rules on the public beach and help enforce those rules, relieving police officers of some of that burden.
It is not an easy job. At peak season and on busy weekends in the summer, thousands of people swarm the main part of Clearwater Beach. And they don't always behave responsibly. They get in the water when it isn't safe, wander outside the designated swimming area into boating traffic, lose track of their children, fall asleep in the blazing sun, jump off the pier into shallow water. In the past year, Clearwater Beach lifeguards answered 13,600 calls for service.
In the past, Clearwater has taken pride in having an outstanding lifeguard program on the beach. The city has eight full-time, year-round guards who are career professionals. Their average salary is just over $30,000. The number of guards almost doubles at peak season when part-time guards come onboard to help. The guards train regularly and test their skills in lifeguard competitions.
The city surely wouldn't consider opening its public pools without having lifeguards on duty, so why would it consider pulling guards off the beaches, which draw many more people? Perhaps city officials think it would be okay because other beaches in the Tampa Bay area don't have lifeguards or have only a part-time program during peak season. Beachgoers in those communities are familiar with signs warning that no guards are on duty and that people swim at their own risk. A sign, of course, doesn't do much good when someone needs help. The sign is designed to protect the government, not the public.
Clearwater Beach is in a different category from those other beaches. It is the Tampa Bay area's premier beach. It previously has been ranked as the top urban beach in the United States. It is widely advertised. It attracts bigger crowds, and the numbers will only grow as the redevelopment of the beach tourist district is completed and the economy recovers.
Public safety should be priority one. City officials have an obligation to make sure that the current level of safety on Clearwater Beach is maintained.