Lifeguards could disappear from some of Brevard County’s busiest beaches unless the county and three beach cities come to an agreement on who should pay the guards.

Brevard County commissioners are backing a plan to stop providing lifeguard coverage at six beaches in Cocoa Beach, Indialantic and Melbourne Beach unless municipalities pick up 50% of the costs.

The municipalities have so far refused this. Under the plan introduced by Commissioner John Tobia and unanimously approved at a County Commission budget workshop on Feb. 29, lifeguard coverage at city-maintained beach parks could end on Oct. 1, the start of the county’s new budget year , unless the municipalities change their minds before July 1.

This comes in the wake of Brevard County’s expansion of lifeguard coverage in the current budget year, partly in response to fourteen drownings along Space Coast beaches. Generally, drownings occurred when lifeguards were off duty or when there was no lifeguard cover at all.

Tobia’s proposal was not on the agenda of the County Commission’s budget workshop, and county officials made no comments at the meeting. Additionally, some residents who attended the workshop and wanted to discuss the issue were not given the opportunity to speak about it until the public comment period at the end of the nearly 3½-hour workshop – after the committee vote had already taken place.

Previous financing plan: Brevard will expand ocean lifeguard coverage using tourism tax revenue

But the move wasn’t a total surprise. In May 2023, commissioners asked County Manager Frank Abbate to contact the municipalities to see if beachside cities and towns would agree to pay half the cost of lifeguard protection on their beaches.

Tobia said he felt the province had made it clear that without such an agreement, the province would no longer provide these services, largely to the province’s detriment. He said the committee’s vote at the budget workshop gave Abbate and other county staff direction on how to prepare the 2024-2025 lifeguard budget if the cities and towns don’t change their minds about splitting the costs 50-50.

Other provisions of Tobia’s plan

Among other twists in Tobia’s proposal:

  • Up to $500,000 of the potential savings — from either municipalities paying some of the lifeguard costs or the county not providing lifeguards for municipalities at all — would be used to help pay for upgrades to the complex. the Florida Department of Health in Viera, so it is expanding its clinic space and relocating office space. Although a state agency, the Department of Health’s Viera operation is housed in a county-owned building, and the county provides the agency with some funding.
  • Provincial funding for the lifeguard program in the 2024-2025 budget year would come solely from the province’s general fund. In the current fiscal year 2023-2024, a portion of funding for lifeguards and the promotion of lifeguard-protected beaches was allocated from revenue generated by the county’s 5% tourism development tax on hotel rooms, vacation rentals and other short-term rentals.
  • If municipalities refuse to pay half the cost, the county would continue to provide and pay lifeguards at county-maintained beach parks within city limits, such as Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach. But it would not provide lifeguards for city-maintained parks in the city limits, such as the area near the Cocoa Beach Pier and Shepard Park in Cocoa Beach.

Which beaches are affected

A total of six beach areas fall into the latter category, where lifeguard coverage may be lost. They are:

  • Cocoa Beach Pier in Cocoa Beach, which currently has a year-round and one seasonal lifeguard tower.
  • The end of Minutemen Causeway in Cocoa Beach, which currently has a year-round lifeguard tower.
  • Shepard Park in Cocoa Beach, which currently has year-round and two seasonal lifeguard towers.
  • Tulip Avenue in Cocoa Beach, which currently has one seasonal lifeguard tower.
  • Boardwalk at Indialantic, which currently has a year-round and one seasonal lifeguard tower.
  • Ocean Avenue in Melbourne Beach, which currently has two seasonal lifeguard towers.

The annual cost of operating one full-time tower is $333,543, and the cost of one seasonal tower is $127,934.

Under Tobia’s proposal, Cocoa Beach, with its current level of lifeguard coverage, would be asked to pay $756,182 for the period 2024-25, with Indialantic being asked to pay $230,738 and Melbourne Beach being asked to pay $127,934.

Tobia said other beach communities without county-funded lifeguards could also benefit from the program if they agree to pay half the cost of lifeguards. These include Cape Canaveral, Indian Harbor Beach and Satellite Beach.

Tobia focused on Cocoa Beach, Indialantic and Melbourne Beach during his presentation at the budget workshop on his lifeguard cost-sharing proposal. He said communities can use the money generated by municipal parking revenues to pay their share of lifeguard costs. And he identified some items in their budgets that he said were “unnecessary expenses,” such as the renovation of a skate park in Cocoa Beach, plants for the median along Fifth Avenue in Indialantic and decorative light poles in Melbourne Beach.

Cocoa Beach officials respond

But at a Cocoa Beach City Commission meeting last month, city commissioners rejected any move to increase the city’s annual payment for lifeguards to 50% of total costs, which would total $756,182. Instead, they voted 3-2 in favor of an allocation of about $89,000.

In an agenda report prepared for that meeting, the city manager’s office said the city tax should pay for lifeguards because more than 2.5 million tourists visit Cocoa Beach annually.

“Actual Cocoa Beach residents (as opposed to tourists) who swim in the ocean in Cocoa Beach tend to be knowledgeable and good swimmers,” the report said. “It is the tourists who usually need rescue services if they do not know how to deal with tidal waves or enter the ocean when weather conditions make it unsafe, or the tourists themselves are poor swimmers.”

Cocoa Beach Mayor Keith Capizzi said he doesn’t think Tobia’s proposal is fair.

“It’s not that we don’t want to keep people safe,” Capizzi said. “We definitely want to keep people safe in the water.”

But Capizzi claims Cocoa Beach needs the parking revenue it receives to pay for the relatively large percentage of police calls it receives that involve tourists visiting the area. He also objects to Tobia earmarking the money from Cocoa Beach’s proposed city budget for repairs to the city’s skate park, saying the repairs are needed to improve the safety of that facility.

Additionally, Capizzi said many Cocoa Beach residents who do not directly benefit from tourism spending would prefer to see the county stop promoting the city to tourists.

“The residents don’t care if the tourists come here,” Capizzi said.

After hearing about the County Commission discussion, Cocoa Beach commissioners voted 4-1 Thursday not to fund any of the lifeguard costs for 2024-2025.

More: Brevard County wants to shift the cost of lifeguard protection to the municipalities

Public Comment Issues

Capizzi said he and other city officials would have attended the county budget workshop — had they known Tobia was advancing his proposal and that it would be voted on.

“He didn’t even give us a chance to be there,” Capizzi said. “They pushed something through without any input from the public. This whole thing kind of stinks.”

Cocoa resident Kristin Lortie was among those attending the provincial budget workshop. She filled out a speaker card to discuss the lifeguard issue, but was not allowed to speak until the public comment period at the end of the workshop. She then sent a formal objection to County Attorney Morris Richardson protesting the County Commission’s vote without allowing prior public comment.

Unlike a regular County Commission meeting, where residents can bring in speaker cards for all agenda items, the budget workshop only gives the public one opportunity to speak: at the end of the meeting.

Richardson said this is consistent with state statute because residents will have other opportunities to address the County Commission on the lifeguard issue, including during two county budget hearings in September.

Still, Canaveral Groves resident Katie Delaney, a Republican candidate for the County Commission in North Brevard District 1, who attended the budget workshop, said she was disappointed by what she felt was a lack of transparency in the proposal not being part of the online county planning. agenda package prior to the meeting. She also said the County Commission should have given residents an opportunity to comment publicly before the vote.

What’s next

Tobia said he hopes affected municipalities will reconsider and agree to pay half the cost of lifeguards at city-maintained beach parks.

But County Commission Chairman Jason Steele said, “My prediction is none of them are going to do this.”

Regardless of what municipalities do, lifeguards would remain at six county-maintained parks, three in cities and three in unincorporated Brevard. They are Cherie Down in Cape Canaveral, Lori Wilson in Cocoa Beach and Paradise in Melbourne Beach, plus these in unincorporated Brevard: Spessard Holland North, Spessard Holland South and Juan Ponce de Leon Landing. These locations have a total of three year-round lifeguard towers and five seasonal lifeguard towers.

How the tourist tax money will be spent if the next budget year is not earmarked for lifeguards has yet to be determined. The latest budget update from the Bureau of Tourism shows that $934,654 has been transferred from the cultural marketing fund to a special fund for lifeguard-related expenses in the current budget year.

Tobia said his preference is to have the county use the tourism tax revenue that would have been spent on lifeguard expenses added to the tourism marketing budget for efforts to promote Brevard County, rather than shifting it back to the cultural budget. The cultural fund is used for subsidies to local arts and cultural organizations and events that attract tourists to the province, as well as for subsidies for major events such as air shows and an annual motorboat race.

Dave Berman is business editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Berman at dberman@floridatoday.com, at @bydaveberman and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dave.berman.54

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