By DOTTY NIST
Walton County’s tourism council has voted to recommend the South Walton Fire District’s (SWFD) bid to provide lifeguard/beach safety services on the Walton County beaches.
At a Sept. 24 special meeting, the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) voted to negate its previous decision to reject all four bids that had been received in response to a request for proposals for these services. The council members then voted in favor of a $765,000-per-year bid by the fire district, which has provided lifeguard/beach safety services in a partnership agreement with the TDC since 2006.
The special meeting took place at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
The lifeguard/beach safety services are funded through the TDC budget. To meet legal requirements, the TDC advertises for bids for the services and reviews and evaluates the bids that are received.
At their Sept. 11 regular meeting, a majority of the council members had voted to reject all bids and start the process of seeking new bids. Of the bidding parties, the SWFD had been ranked the highest by far by a TDC evaluation committee composed of TDC Director Dawn Moliterno, TDC member Scott Russell, TDC Code Enforcement Officer Jeff McVay, and a number of other TDC staff members. However, there had been concerns on the part of council members about the SWFD bid coming in as the highest, in excess of the amount the TDC had budgeted for the program, which was $711,000.
Other parties submitting bids were PMI, USA Pools, and Aquatic Management, Inc., with USA Pools submitting the low bid at $554,570 per year.
The Sept. 24 special meeting was called in order for additional information on the SWFD bid and their lifeguard/beach safety program to be provided to the council members.
Moliterno explained that among the reasons for the increase in the cost of the SWFD program had been fuel and personnel insurance costs that had not previously been included in what the TDC was charged for the program. An assistant to the beach safety director was also to be added, which like the director position, was to be year-round.
SWFD Chief Administrator Rick Talbert explained that the program is not just a lifeguard program but is “based on education and awareness” provided to the public by the personnel. More than one million contacts have been made with members of the public through the program between 2006 and 2012, he noted.
There have been zero fatalities since 2006 in the areas covered by the eight lifeguard towers, Talbert also commented.
A ninth lifeguard tower is to be added in the Miramar Beach area for the beginning of the 2013 beach season, another reason for the increase in the cost of the program.
“We’re proud to say that we’re a model for other beach safety programs,” Talbert told the council members.
TDC member Gus Andrews asked about the duties of the assistant beach safety director position during the off-season. Talbert explained that these would include assisting with the refurbishing of equipment used in the program and research to make sure that training methods for personnel are the most current. Beach Safety Director Gary Wise added that, during the off-season, he is the only one responsible for changing the beach safety flags, and that the assistant would help with this task.
Talbert explained that lifeguards are seasonal. “We get new faces every year,” he said. A minimum of 18 lifeguards are kept on staff and generally the SWFD staffs approximately 28 lifeguards for the the program, he said. Hours of duty for the lifeguard towers are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., allowing an additional 30 minutes of duty for setting up in the morning and cleaning up/storing equipment at the end of the day.
“We want this relationship;” TDC member Richard Veldman commented. “that’s why we’re having this meeting.”
“We think it’s a good fit,” he said of the SWFD program.
However Veldman emphasized that accountability is also important to the council.
Moliterno said she had recently gotten comments from the community that the TDC does not believe in a local lifeguard program, which she denied. “I am here to tell you that this council has stood behind this program,” she asserted.
Moliterno explained that in “walking through” any concerns about the SWFD program, the TDC members were performing their duties.
In response to a request from council members, Talbert agreed to document costs associated with the program in greater detail.
Included with the approved motion in favor of the $765,000 SWFD bid was a requirement for a detailed annual report on program expenses, to include all invoices and other supporting documents. Also included were the provisions that the TDC would request a budget amendment in the event of costs for the program exceeding the amount budgeted—and that, in the event that program costs were less than the amount budgeted, that the difference would go back into the TDC budget.
Michele Ray, TDC finance officer, said that the additional amount above that budgeted for the lifeguard program in the 2012-13 budget would come from the TDC’s fourth cent “new product” funds.
The TDC recommendations were subject to final approval by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its Sept. 25 meeting.