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County committed to maintaining lifeguards at Kua Bay, Hapuna despite funding cut

Hawaii County will find a way to cover the tab to maintain full lifeguard services at two state beach parks on the Big Island, despite state lawmakers halving the amount needed to contract the life-saving personnel.

“We’re looking at a shortfall in the high $600,000s,” said Hawaii Fire Department Chief Kazuo Todd on Thursday. “The shortfall is going to make supplying safety equipment and other supplies and keeping operations going even more difficult, but we — the fire department and the County of Hawaii — are really committed to making our island as safe as possible.”

The state typically contracts with Hawaii County to provide lifeguard services at Kua Bay at a cost of $480,000 and Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area for $868,000. That’s in addition to paying other counties for service at three other sites throughout Hawaii: Ke‘e on Kauai, Keawaula on Oahu and Makena on Maui.

However, with revenues wiped out amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, keeping down state revenues and fees that typically fund such services, Gov. David Ige in his biennium budget for 2021-23 cut the $1.4 million annual allocation.

As the budget made its way through the Legislature, funding was added, removed and allocated for specific parks. Ultimately, members of the House and Senate agreed in conference to restore half of the funding, $728,000, leaving the counties to cover the difference. The measure is now awaiting Ige’s signature.

“We were advocating for full funding because it’s super important for safety to have lifeguards at beaches — especially as tourism picks back up, which we’re seeing. We tried and we’ll just come back here and keep trying next year,” said state Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona.

Todd said he is working with Hawaii County Finance Director Deanna Sako and Mayor Mitch Roth to identify another funding source and/or shift things around in the budget to keep both Big Island sites fully staffed.

“We’re committed to making sure the beaches are safe and that we maintain our level of coverage there, but we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to shift budgets to make it work since the state is obviously running into some financial issues of its own,” he said.

Public-private partnerships, like the Hawaii Fire Department has with the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation, will likely play a big role in making ends meet in the future, he said. Donations made to the nonprofit offset costs, such as buying equipment, freeing up those funds for salaries and wages.

“That would make it easier for us to make it work,” Todd said. “We don’t have a magic solution at the moment, definitely there’s some federal funds coming down through the American Recovery Act and other things like that, and hopefully we’ll be able to tap into those other sources of funds to make up the difference.”

Hawaii County has been flipping the tab for lifeguard services at Hapuna since July 2020 when the state notified the county it could no longer fund the $868,000 contract it paid to supply lifeguard services at the state recreation area.

The county opted to pick up the tab to keep the service going, and through the end of 2020 used federal coronavirus relief monies to cover the cost. Effective Jan. 1, county taxpayers have been footing the bill, and they will continue to do so through the end of this fiscal year.

The $480,000 contract for lifeguards at Kua Bay is funded by the state through June 30.

Lifeguard services at Hawaii County beach parks are fully funded for the coming fiscal year.

“At this time, everything is good on the county side. We’re continuing as we did in the current year,” Todd said.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources did not respond to a request for comment as of press time Thursday.

Email Chelsea Jensen at cjensen@westhawaiitoday.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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