And although the mayor restored additional recreation center and library hours, augmented police and fire forces, triggered more street upgrades and infrastructure repairs, and increased support for the city’s arts and culture program in his revised fiscal year 2013 budget, not everyone was satisfied with his proposal.
At the City Council’s May 25 meeting, San Diego lifeguards said they were left out of funding priorities.
The lifeguard union, led by Sgt. Ed Harris, urged councilmembers to come to its rescue by allotting an additional $368,000 in budget revisions to fill three relief positions — which would cover lifeguards who are sick, injured or on vacation — and instate a wellness program to monitor health and prevent injuries.
“The mayor touted us as the most efficient department [the city] has, but then he proceeded to cut us by the same margin,” said Harris. “We don’t think it’s right that the city try to maintain the same coverage but cut corners to the point where it’s starting to get dangerous.”
Harris said low staffing levels tied to injuries have led to gaps in public safety at the city’s beaches and bays.
“The reason we need the relief positions is quite simply that the lifeguard services has the highest injury rate. At any given time, we have two to nine lifeguards out on injury,” he said. “If [the city] can’t fund relief positions, we should consider closing a beach for safety during the winter months.”
He said although lifeguards do not hope the situation comes down to beach closures, they also don’t want people to have a false sense of security on beaches and bays that are understaffed or staffed by underqualified or injured lifeguards.
“One thing lifeguards can’t deal with is someone drowning in their waters,” he said. “We are a safety service, just like the police department and fire department. The city charter says public safety comes first, but there are 100 positions in this budget that are being funded before us.”
He pointed out that both the lifeguard union and community leaders have helped broker deals with UCSD and Toyota in the past to reinstate funding for beach safety essentials like lifeguards at Black’s Beach, lifeguard facilities and new lifeguard service vehicles.
San Diego lifeguards have even been featured in a show on The Weather Channel, bringing in approximately $70,000 to the general fund, Harris said.
“We’ve saved the city millions of dollars,” he said, urging the council to put that money back into lifeguard services. “This is not about pensions. This is not about benefits. It has simply, unfortunately, become the union’s job to get the things we need. We just need more staff to fill our vacancies.”
It is time for lifeguards to reap some of the benefits of that hard work, said Harris.
“We love our job, we’re very happy to have our job. This isn’t about perks or pension benefits or anything else, it’s just asking the city to give us the personnel to continue to make San Diego a safe place,” he said.
District 2 City Councilman Kevin Faulconer stressed his priority in keeping the city’s beaches and bays safe.
“I am collaborating with my City Council colleagues and Mayor Sanders to pass a balanced budget that protects San Diego’s beaches, bays, clean air and quality of life,” he said. “I am working with the public safety departments on several funding requests, including this one.”
The City Council will vote whether or not to adopt the budget on June 11, and the mayor will either approve or veto the final budget proposal on June 30.