When the season starts with spring break on May 1, there will be half as many lifeguards on Flagler Beach’s sands this year, compared to last. The city cut its lifeguard budget by $100,000 to accommodate the addition of a police officer, a fire department captain, a raise for the city manager, 4 percent raises for city employees, and repairs following Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.
It is a substantial cut that will have visible effects on the beach, with four lifeguard towers instead of eight, and half the 30 or so lifeguards who had previously been employed. The lifeguard towers will be spread out further than they had been, but the total length of beach with lifeguard coverage will diminish as a result.
Last year the lifeguard coverage stretched with towers from 10th Street North to 10th Street South, a 20-block stretch equidistant from the Pier. The distances are still being worked out for this year, says Tom Gillin, the city’s parks and recreations and beach services director, but the current calculation would have coverage from 2nd Street north to 6th Street South, an eight-block stretch.
There’s been no drownings in Flagler Beach during lifeguard hours for the five or six years the city has been part of the United States Lifesaving Association. Last year the city reported 135,000 visitors to its beach (down from 140,000 the year before), with Flagler Beach lifeguards carrying out 116 rescues—90 from riptides, 17 from the surf, according to numbers filed with the association (down from 127 rescues the year before). There were also 1,900 preventative measures such as warnings or cautions from lifeguards shifting swimmers closer to a tower and the like.
“We’ll still have coverage out there, it’ll still be a protected beach,” said Larry Newsom, the city manager, who had sought to blunt some of the cut by speaking to County Administrator Craig Coffey about perhaps increasing the county’s contribution, possibly using tourist-tax dollars. But he did not have that conversation with Coffey. “We kind of missed the boat last year,” Newsom said, as the county had already set its budget.
The county has contributed $72,500 a year to Flagler Beach’s lifeguard budget every year for at least the past five years, and does so again this year. It does not contribute money out of tourist development funds, which are restricted by law to specific uses. Flagler Beach’s lifeguard budget was $234,352 last year. This year, it’s been cut 41 percent to $138,208, not including capital dollars for the program totaling $47,800, including $20,000 for an ATV, $20,000 for a utility vehicle for beach services, and $13,800 that annually goes into a reserve to replace equipment.
Most of the lifeguards work full time once the season begins in earnest with Memorial Day weekend. From that point through Labor Day, lifeguards are on the beach from 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., seven days a week. Lifeguards this year will first appear on the beach in their more limited coverage area during the school district’s spring break, for nine days from March 10 through March 18, then on weekends until Memorial Day, when the seven-days-a-week schedule picks up.
“We do get help from the county,” Flagler Beach Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who last year led the effort to rebuild new guard towers for the beach, said, “but it doesn’t nearly cover the true cost, and to be honest with you most of the Flagler Beach residents don’t even swim where the lifeguards are. They don’t necessarily want to go where the crowds are, that’s part of the reason they live in Flagler Beach, they want to go to their nearest walkover and go to the beach there. So the majority of beachgoers isn’t generated by Flagler Beach, it’s generated, for one, by TDC advertising and trying to get people to flock to Flagler Beach.”
TDC is the acronym for the county’s Tourist Development Council, a county government agency that oversees the spending of about $1.5 million in revenue from the 5 percent sales surtax on hotel, motel and other short-term lodging bills. Most of that money goes toward salaries for the county’s tourism bureau, its advertising budget and subsidies to private and non-profit organizations that bring events to the county. State law restricts spending TDC money to such expenditures, along with beach protection and certain capital expenditures, but not salaries for lifeguards.
“It’s not the county’s fault, it’s not anybody’s fault,” Newsom said of the smaller lifeguard budget. “We’ll be approaching the county for additional coverage, if we can figure out how the TDC can support lifeguards, because it is a public safety issue.” He said a couple of counties in the Panhandle, where he used to work, had been able to use tourism dollars for lifeguards, taking advantage of a loophole that ties the spending directly to public safety. That may be possible in the future, Newsom said. Meanwhile, this year’s budget being what it is doesn’t mean that it will not be increased somehow next year, if not this year. “There’s going to be weekends when I’ll probably ramp it up and ask for a budget amendment,” Newsom said.
The lower budget is not quite a surprise. It was in the budget workshops last spring and the city commission approved it in September, though as often goes with budgets stretching to 100 pages and many charts and fine print, the details about the lifeguard budget were missed and are only now coming to light, as the city prepares to train its year’s corp of lifeguards, and many of last year’s corps discover that their services won’t be needed. Some 90 percent of lifeguards expect to work full time, Gillin said.
Last year there were 30 lifeguards employed, with 14 on the beach at any one time: a guard in each of the eight towers on the beach (five to the north side, three to the south), one lifeguard in the tower on the pier, a lookout in constant contact with lifeguards on the beach and with a broader view of the ocean, two lieutenants patrolling on ATVs (one on each side of the pier), two lifeguards who provided lunch and other breaks to tower guards, and a captain overseeing them all. This year the guard on the pier will remain — “with less of a staff it will be more essential that we have that extra set of eyes up in the tower,” Gillin said – but the rest of the corps will be cut.
“We’ve got to work within the parameters of the budget, we have x amount of dollars,” Gillin said. “The option is either to cut the season shorter, we didn’t want to do that, especially the summer season, when the kids are out of school, so we’re spreading the towers a little further.” And the guards and the city will be urging swimmers to swim in front of the towers. “They should be doing that anyway.”
But there are concerns. For one, the hurricanes have eroded the beach significantly, reducing its width and reducing the amount of space for beachgoers at high tides, which will only encourage them to spread further north and south, and out of view of the towers. Second, drinking alcohol on the beach is not prohibited (as it is on the boardwalk). “That’s another thing the lifeguards are on the lookout for because the danger of drinking and swimming is a lot like drinking and driving,” Gillin said, “although the danger is more to oneself rather than bringing others into the equation.”
The cities—Palm Coast and Bunnell—are not being approached for extra money, Newsom said, because they already contribute taxes to county coffers, which in turn are contributed to Flagler Beach’s lifeguard budget. And the city’s beaches are not the playground only for those cities, either, Newsom said, echoing Belhumeur’s reference to visitors drawn in by tourism advertising.
“We haven’t had a drowning with the guards on duty, and we want to keep it that way,” Gillin said. But the season ahead will be a challenge. Ironically, the city is hosting a southeast regional lifeguard competition later this year, the first time it’s done so since 2015.
Why are we cutting coverage we should be raising coverage or has flagler given up on attracting vacationers to our beautiful beach?
Wishful thinking says
I get it ! Tourist Dollars can’t be spend to protect the tourists who pay this tax – right?
Gimme a break if anyone takes this crap from the county any longer. Tourist dollars are spent exactly as those in charge want to spend them – and none of it gets used for the tourists. New ad ” Come on down to Flagler County … at your own risk”. Your bed tax pays for the county’s pet projects and pet people- sorry nothing left for tourists
Just the truth says
So, the City Manager and Employees get raises so, they cut the lifeguards that protect people on their beaches, something wrong with this picture.
Why not eliminate ALL of the lifeguard stations and jobs, sell the new RED lifeguard stations that were built last year, put up signs designating that beaches are no longer under lifeguard protection and that you use the beach and water at your OWN risk, then the money saved can go into more of the local politicians pockets that they so well deserve. Makes perfect common sense!
Another poor decision from a government only interested in the money pit pier and outdated zoning codes.
So we let businesses expand without providing adequate parking and choose not to charge them for this luxury. Then we turn around and cut life/safety on the beach in half. I’m not thrilled with either decision.
Not really understanding cutting all these positions in order to use the money for other positions. The extra police personnel I can understand. Nowadays, you can never have enough police patrolling the areas. I am however stumped as to why the city needs to create a captain position for the fire department. We only have one station. Isn’t a fire chief enough?
Y’all should cut something else before u cut lifeguards last time they tried cutting the budget 5 years ago my nephew got hit by a drunk driver on Seminole woods n they had to drive him to Halifax instead of flying him because you guys cut budget y’all should think about other people’s life’s instead of spending it on stupid stuff.
Revenue – since the issue is revenue why not pursue Historic Status with Historic MARKERS for starters for ‘ The Pier ‘ and also for the historic ‘ Golf Club ‘ Course. Once achieved start applying for Grants monies from the State of Florida Historic Preservations offices and other Grant Sources.
We have THREE Historic MARKERS in Palm Coast – one on Casper Drive and two on Clark Lane within Palm Coast Levitt and I.T.T. Showcase Golf Course Neighborhood. Its a good thing for a ‘ sense of place ‘ and also there are only 10 months and a couple of days until Palm Coast reaches its 50 th Anniversary Milestone .
Historic MARKERS for Flagler Beach will enhance ‘ Flagler Beach ‘ also. Hopefully Flagler Beach will pursue these revenue sources as other Leadership Cities in Florida do.
Typical republicans !!!!!
Brian Smith says
Why don’t we give the city manage another 30% raise and eliminate all the lifeguards.
Crusty Old Salt says
Why not consider instituting paid parking and use that revenue to pay for increased lifeguard protection, beach clean ups, more lifeguard towers, dune walkovers, etc.?
I agree with Just the Truth on this one. If you need to fund beach safety, then your responsibity is to fund beach safety first. Your priorities are screwed up.
I could not agree more with all the post before mine here. A rise for some and a new fire chief captain position when you already have a fire chief? All while cutting life saving life guards for all…Oh yeah typical Reps! As taxpayers we should have the right to stop them and say NO!
Concerned Citizen says
“To be honest with you most of the Flagler Beach residents don’t even swim where the lifeguards are.” Where are your facts? What about the residents of Palm Coast? Bunnell? Tourists? People who don’t live right on the beach, close enough to walk??? So many people come to this beach, especially on the Fourth of July. It needs to be protected. People bring their children here. As the article says, with the shorter beach, people will be more spread out. This will be especially bad since the article says we’re going from a 20-block coverage to an 8-block coverage. This is a good way to scare away tourists, not attract them. The budget needs to be reformed!
You should have worked within your parameters of your budget when you were giving yourself raises !
Make sure you put that in the future tourist guide brochures……… no parking ……. not many lifeguards……crappy restaurants………..half a pier ………..but have no fear our city employees get a four percent raise….. there will be an additional cop giving out speeding tickets ! A great place to visit !
Great idea Flagler Beach. The lawsuits will bankrupt you.
The city needs to sell their largest debacle, the golf course. The city also needs to clean up the beaches and make a real attempt at fixing the dunes. The beach is covered with debris and the dunes are eroding by rain washed from the roads. Taxes are certainly high enough to cover needed expenses for the residents, since the recent 25% increase in base fees regarding water & garbage. What you have is poor leadership and the typical “kicking the can down the road” mentally.
So if a person drowns I guess its ok for the City in their opinion, money means more than life itself.
In as much as the beach is open for use by tourists and County residents at large, maybe the Cities should consider turning this over to Flagler County. The same happened years ago in Volusia County when the cities struggled to maintain their sections and there was lack of uniformity. Poor little Flagler Beach cannot afford to support this recreational use for all the county and tourists. Reducing life guards has to be the worst idea I’ve heard out of this administration.
Brian Smith says
We should have a bridge tax, Locals buy a permit, and tourist pay to use our beaches. The money is used to improve the services and trash pickup and new parking lots. Win Win!
@Brian Smith might as well have a A1A tax as people travel to our area by other means via other counties.
I actually like Brian Smith’s idea of a bridge toll. As far fetched as it is.My difference is that residents don’t pay for a permit.
I’m okay with city workers getting a raise. I’m not overly thrilled with the 30% raise. But it is what it is.
Oh, to whoever was complaining about the golf course. The parking lot is about full most days. So money is being made.
Bridge Tax is conceptually a fun idea, but both 100 and A1A are State Roads. A local City cannot charge a toll on State roads.
Just the truth says
Flagler Beach City Officials, as you can read from above you made a real bad decision. Next time ask your taxpayers to vote on your stupid decisions.
Lawsuits in the making smh
Charge for beach access says
Start charging for beach access. Use that money to pay for cops and lifeguards. Charge $3 a day or $500 a year!!!! get with it. Fix the beaches!