July 16, 2007

Lifeguards Face Outsourcing

By Jasmine Kripalani, The Miami Herald

Jul. 16--Dania Beach is once again considering replacing city lifeguards with an outside contractor, risking the wrath of residents in a bid to bring its budget into line with the state's tight-fisted mandate.

"Everything is on the table," said City Commissioner Anne Castro.

The Legislature has ordered cities to reduce their tax rates so they'll collect no more than than they did last year, a move that has sent local leaders into a belt-tightening frenzy.

Dania Beach must cut about $1.6 million from its budget this year.

Castro said the state-mandated budget cuts will force them to revisit the contentious issue when they meet at 9 a.m. July 24 for the city's budget workshop at 100 W. Dania Beach Blvd.

Dania Beach spends nearly $545,000 for six full-time and four part-time lifeguards on the beach. City swimming pools are managed and staffed by Texas-based Jeff Ellis and Associates, which also provides ocean lifeguards for Hallandale Beach.

Glenn Morris, division captain of Dania Beach Marine Rescue, said the contract lifeguards are less skilled, less experienced and lower-paid than his city crew. To hand over beach safety to them would put lives at risk, he said.

"If you were to put my best person against their best person, hands down we would win. There's no comparison," Morris said.

Morris said Dania Beach lifeguards receive more training, including emergency medical services, which are geared toward paramedics.

Bethany Gilley, manager of Dania Beach human resources, said their lifeguards receive training in CPR and first aid.

Ellis lifeguards in Hallandale Beach generally earn between $8 and $10 an hour and only full-time hires are eligible for health benefits, Gilley said.

Dania Beach starts its lifeguards at $15 per hour.

Still, City Manager Ivan Pato said that privatizing could save the city as much as $200,000 a year.

Neighboring Hallandale Beach has used Ellis to guard swimmers for four years. Mayor Joy Cooper said they have been generally satisfied with the results. One near-tragedy, however, bolsters Morris' case.

On May 8, lifeguards who work for Ellis closed the beach because of rough conditions -- then left their posts. Linda Jo Tracton of Pembroke Pines, an avid swimmer, arrived for her usual swim off Hallandale Beach near the Hollywood border.

But it wasn't a normal day.

"That day the waves wouldn't let me get my head above the water. When I tried to come back and I glanced at the lifeguard station, there was nobody there," Tracton said in a phone interview.

"I was thinking this would be a terrible way to go. I'm out here alone and I started to panic."

Juan Restrepo, a Hollywood beach lifeguard, spotted her bobbing head through his binoculars. He jumped on his all-terrain vehicle and was able to get there in time to save her.

Following that incident, Restrepo's supervisor, James Shoemaker, issued a scathing memo to Hollywood Fire Rescue Department telling them about the problem at Hallandale Beach.

"In my personal opinion the Ellis lifeguards are unable and unqualified to serve as ocean lifeguards," he wrote.

But Cooper said it's the only bad experience the city has had with Ellis.

"They were not supposed to leave," Cooper said.

The company sent City Manager Mike Good a letter of apology and reimbursed the city $500.

On its website, the company published stories of two people saved in Hallandale Beach in March by their lifeguard, Jon Tyler.

In Fort Lauderdale, Mayor Jim Naugle said the city had considered outsourcing the city's additional lifeguards as they extend their coverage area in North Beach. However, commissioners opposed the move at a recent meeting.

"I wanted private lifeguards because the expense is huge with pensions and benefits," Naugle said.

But after the city went through a bid process, Naugle said the savings "didn't amount to much."

Commissioners last week agreed to spend $200,000 on five more lifeguard stands for the North Beach area. Several new lifeguards will also be hired by the city.

There hasn't been a drowning on Fort Lauderdale beach in 20 years in a supervised area, said Shannon Vezina, a city spokeswoman.

Miami Herald staff writer Ani Martinez contributed to this report.


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