Time is ticking to secure a funding source for lifeguard services at two popular but perilous state beach parks in West Hawaii.
Funding for life-saving personnel to be stationed at both Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area in South Kohala and Kua Bay in North Kona runs out June 30. Beyond then, the outlook is uncertain as tourism remains hindered amid the ongoing pandemic, keeping down state revenues and fees that typically fund such services to protect visitors and residents alike.
“We’re actively seeking support from our legislators and our constituents, and we’re asking them to support a full-funded lifeguard for the state beaches at Hapuna and Kua Bay,” Hawaii Fire Department Acting Chief Robert Perreira told Hawaii County Fire Commissioners on Wednesday in Kailua-Kona.
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 the county to supply lifeguard services at the state facility, he said.
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 the fiscal year on June 30.
The $480,000 contract for lifeguards at Kua Bay is funded by the state through June 30.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks confirmed Friday there is no current funding for lifeguards at either of the sites. Further, the department has been instructed to not request new operational funding. The division is examining how to operate State Parks under a “potential 20% reduction in current general funds.”
The state in its Fiscal Biennium Budget 2021-23 reduced funding for county contract costs for lifeguard services by more than $1.4 million for each of the next two fiscal years.
“While new increased fees have been approved and are in place for parking, entry, camping and lodging — due to the vast reduction in the tourism industry and the current ceiling on special fund spending, this income will be insufficient to support or offset the cost of any of the 5 lifeguards contracts. State Parks needs the special fund revenue and spending ceiling increase just to cover basic park operations and offset the proposed reduction in general funds for operations,” the division said. The state contracts with the counties for lifeguard services at Ke‘e on Kauai, Keawaula on Oahu, Makena on Maui, and Kua and Hapuna on the Big Island.
State Parks in the Fiscal Biennium Budget said it needs an increase in its special fund ceiling to $2 million. The ceiling was “drastically reduced” to $93,312 last year due to an “unanticipated outcome” of changing funding of 48 special-funded positions to general funds, which the division said has helped it get through the pandemic.
Further, the division’s allocation from the state’s transient accommodations tax (TAT) was also suspended. Pre-pandemic, State Parks was allocated $2 million per fiscal year of TAT; about $600,000 remains forcing the division to consider partially funding lifeguard services for only weekends and holidays, which is already occurring at one site on Oahu.
“State Parks is now very challenged to simply cover statewide park operations over the next few years — depending on certain economic policy outcomes. Prior to the pandemic, and based on 2019 tourism patronage, the fee increase and the continued allocation of the TAT would have enabled State Parks to possibly cover the cost of these contracts, but has been trying for several years to fund them all from the TAT due to the high tourism patronage at the parks with contracted County lifeguards,” the division said. “Like the rest of the State and our economy — the collapse of the visitor industry and the anticipated income from the fee increase has not occurred. State Parks is treading water financially and hope to sustain basic operational costs.”
During Wednesday’s county-level meeting, Fire Commissioner Gregory Henkel asked the acting chief if the department could compel resorts in the area to help fund services until the economy picks up, noting that the department’s Jet Ski at Hapuna provides emergency services for much of the Kohala Coast.
“We’ve been kicking around different ideas. Obviously, we want to secure state funding because that’s our primary goal, but like with anything, because we are a community service and serving the hotel community, also we will be reaching out to them and discussing anything, if things don’t work out with the state funding part,” Perreira said.
He continued, “If it’s a state beach let’s support it with state funding. If that doesn’t work out, then we will take necessary steps to acquire funding.”
That includes looking to county coffers to cover the cost before going to hoteliers. A philanthropist could step in, donating to the county to cover such services as have others with cash to spare for post-arrival testing at Kona International Airport at Keahole.
“That funding for Hapuna and Kua Bay, we know we need to realize that, we need to see that (funding),” said Perreira. “If it doesn’t happen I’m hopeful that Mayor (Mitch) Roth will support — that’s the second avenue we are looking at.”
Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said the presence of county Ocean Safety officers at both sites “is necessary to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors alike.”
“As integral as the presence of county lifeguards is at those beaches, so too is the funding from the state, and we are prepared to advocate to the highest levels for continued funding. We understand that there are major deficits this year, but public safety at two of Hawaii’s most beautiful and popular beaches must be a priority,” Roth said.
Sen. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka‘u), who was instrumental in getting lifeguards stationed at Kua Bay in 2019, said public health and safety is a top priority for the community.
“If the governor and DLNR removed from their budget lifeguard contracts with the counties, it is incumbent upon the Legislature to find the resources to continue this vital service for our residents and visitors,” he said.