State Senators are set to take up Thursday the House’s proposed two-year budget bill that restores some funding for lifeguard services at five state beach parks, including two on the Big Island.
House Bill 200, HD 1, would restore $735,000 of the $1.45 million in general funds for contracting with the counties to provide lifeguard services on Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island that were cut in Gov. David Ige’s proposed Fiscal Biennium Budget 2021-23. As written, the draft has the counties covering the other half.
“I personally would like to see the lifeguard positions be fully funded, but the counties are getting additional funds now from the American Rescue Plan,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona). “I haven’t heard from them (the counties) at this point on what they think of it, and we’ll see what the Senate does, but we have to get there. I think the priority is to make sure that these positions are funded and we continue to have lifeguards at the five state beaches that are in this situation.”
The Senate Committee on Ways and Means, the panel that makes decisions about state finances, is set to take up House Bill 200 at 10:15 a.m. Thursday. The hearing will be livestreamed via YouTube for public viewing. To view the full bill, and to submit testimony, visit https://bit.ly/3m63LDK.
Sen. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka‘u), a member of Ways and Means, said Tuesday the restoration of the funds is still a priority.
“I am continuing to work with our Senate Ways and Means chairman to fulfill our obligation to provide this essential service,” Kanuha said.
Funding for the life-saving personnel stationed at Hapuna 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.
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 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.
Hawaii Fire Department Acting Chief Robert Perreira said the possibility of partial restoration of funds was both “positive and negative” news.
“We have some funding, but that doesn’t make us whole and so how do we come up with the other $700,000 that the state should be providing because it is state beaches?” he asked.
Without full funding, the two sites could see reduced staffing and/or hours.
“That would be something that we would have to sit down and talk about for sure. If its only half the funding then maybe we can only support the beaches half the time,” he said, later noting the two beaches are “very heavily used, especially with all the tourists starting to come back to the islands. Our numbers have not went down — at those beaches the numbers are high.”
The Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks has said there is no current or future funding for lifeguards at either of the sites. The department declined to comment Tuesday on the pending legislation.
The state spends more than $3 million annually on 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. Pre-pandemic, some $2 million in transient accommodations taxes helped cover the cost, however, that funding source has been eliminated in favor of fees assessed at the parks. In mid-February, the division had just $600,000 remaining in the account.
Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said his administration is hoping the funding restored makes it through the legislative process.
“We’re really thankful and grateful that the Legislature is at least looking at putting that money back,” Roth said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re talking about saving people’s lives — that’s what it should be there for.”