As Newport Beach lifeguard captain, Brent Jacobsen oversees a department that patrols six and a half miles of coastline, including some of Orange County's most dangerous beaches. On average, the city's lifeguards perform nearly 5,000 rescues and undertake more than 10,000 preventive actions each year.
But lately, Jacobsen has found himself spending most of his time trying to resuscitate the image of his department in the eyes of the public.
Recent media reports throughout the state and beyond have focused on the salaries of the city's 13 full-time lifeguards, who average about $100,000 per year, with benefits that can swell their overall compensation packages to more than $200,000 annually. In addition, it has been widely reported that Newport Beach lifeguards who have served for 30 years and reached the age of 50 are eligible for retirement at 90 percent of their salary.
The public's response, based on Internet posts, has been outrage. And now, it is left to Jacobsen to try to explain why his full-time lifeguards are being paid so generously to put on bathing suits and spend their days at the beach.
He doesn't have much time. On June 14, the City Council will consider adopting a new budget that includes among its cost-cutting measures a slashing of full-time lifeguard positions from 17 in last year's budget—just 13 of which are currently filled—to eight. Under the current glare of media attention, the reduction in full-time positions would appear to be a political no-brainer or, more accurately, opposing the staffing cut would be politically risky.
What's more, the proposal to reduce full-time positions came from Jacobsen's boss, Fire Chief Mike Morgan. Morgan, who became fire chief in December, says media reports and gossip suggesting there's been infighting over the pay issue are inaccurate. "We're all working together, shoulder-to-shoulder," he said.
While Jacobsen agrees that everyone is working toward a viable solution, he still maintains that the proposed cuts will badly hurt his department.
"We've been looking for a new proposal to address our concerns," Jacobsen said. "We still stand by the fact that eight lifeguards is too few to provide adequate safety at the Junior Lifeguard program."
The Junior Lifeguard program, which generates $1 million in revenue each year, provides lifeguard training to some 1,250 boys and girls annually, which is more than the combined enrollment at three of Newport Beach's elementary schools. In addition to overseeing this program, Jacobsen supervises 40 Junior Lifeguard instructors.
Graduates of the Junior Lifeguard program make up most of the department's 200 to 225 seasonal lifeguards, 75 to 80 of which are deployed daily to trucks, boats and lifeguard towers along the Newport Beach shore.
Junior Lifeguards is one of the ways in which the department pays for itself, Jacobsen said. The other is tourism.
"On a good Sunday we could have more visitors than Knott's Berry Farm, Angels Stadium, the O.C. Fair and a Ducks game," Jacobsen said. "Without clean, safe beaches people aren't going to want to attend our beaches."
And if the beaches do not draw people to the city, Jacobsen added, there would be a negative impact on business and real estate values. "I think the City Council appreciates that," he said.
While that may be, it was evident at a May 24 City Council study session on the budget that cutting lifeguard costs, and possibly pensions, may be gaining traction. Although Councilman Keith Curry acknowledged that media reports have been somewhat off-target—"the issue is less the salaries and more the overtime; $56,000 of the legendary $200,000 is overtime"—Curry said, "I would like to see, in addition to lifeguards, a report on overtime citywide and about the steps we are going to take to reduce that." He said he wanted to continue to work with the numbers and possibly look into pension reform.
Jacobsen is not conceding that the full-time lifeguards in his department are overpaid. "The salaries are well within reason compared with the city's supervision staff as well as city professionals throughout Southern California," he said.
Huntington Beach and San Clemente lifeguard salaries range from $93,000 to more than $162,000, and they have similar pension plans. San Diego County lifeguards make comparable salaries but must retire at age 55 with 75 percent of their salary as pension. Los Angeles County's earliest retirement age is 50 and with 10 years of service, lifeguards can retire with 20 percent to 100 percent pensions. Salaries range from $7o,000 to $12o,ooo.
Jacobsen himself collects a salary of $88,000 per year, but his medical and life insurance benefits push his total compensation to well over $100,000.
"It's not the salary that lifeguards are being paid that's the issue, but the economy," said Jacobsen. Back in 1999, when pensions were being negotiated, the real estate market was thriving and money was pouring into the economy, he said, so no one had a problem with the pensions.
The city of Newport Beach has weighed in on the issue, acknowledging in a recent news release that lifeguard salaries have been exaggerated by the media, because the reported salaries include overtime pay resulting from job vacancies that the city is not planning to fill. Only 13 of the 16 full-time lifeguard positions in the current budget are filled.
"Everyone involved in this issue at the city of Newport Beach is working toward a sustainable solution that will help alleviate some of the city's fiscal pressures," the release concluded. "Together, we are confident that we will be able to continue to provide excellent lifeguard service and reduce our operating costs to maintain long-term sustainability."
The recommendation from the fire chief, however, is to cut the budgeted full-time lifeguard positions in half. Morgan says looking at the department over the last six months with a fresh set of eyes has been an advantage. "If I had to develop a lifeguard program, what would it look like?" Morgan said. "I have to take a good look to determine how we can target those areas where the most needs exist. That's my challenge."
The result could be a decrease in full-time positions with an increase in part-time and seasonal staff. Morgan says full-time lifeguards have consistency in their skills, training and already have a working relationship with the other full-time guards. Seasonal staff, although they are excellent lifeguards, are not studying safety full time and have other jobs during the rest of the year.
The debate is raging at the time when the beaches are the busiest and need for full staffing is the greatest -- between April 1 and Sept. 30.
"We are super busy and the beaches need to be patrolled heavily," Morgan said. "Safety is paramount, but the city wants us to come up with efficiencies."
For now a new proposal is being worked through City Council by the fire chief, city manager and key people from the lifeguard division in order to find an alternative solution to alleviate the city's fiscal pressures, officials said.
Tara Finnigan, Newport Beach's public information officer, said, "The end result will be a plan built upon three core principles—safety, efficiency and putting the right people in the right jobs, and staffing our beaches at the right levels. They have told me they are confident that they will find a solution that meets those objectives."
"I don't think we are very far away," Mayor Mike Henn said.
Lifeguard Staffing Guidelines: (As discussed by City Manager David Kiff at the May 24 budget meeting.)
Minimum staffing in the off-season: October 1-March 31—One lifeguard in each of the three geographical areas, one in dispatch/observation tower, one section chief (five in total).
High season: April 1-Sept. 30—One lifeguard in each geographical area, one on boat, one section chief (five total). Seasonal staff works dispatch, (up to 210 seasonal staff), Junior Lifeguard participants at 1,200 per year.
Current staffing (budget $4.55 million)
Seventeen full-time employees: three battalion chiefs, 9 lifeguard captains, four lifeguard officers.
10.72 full-time positions (includes Junior Lifeguard administrator position), additional chief position, switching the battalion chiefs to section chiefs, deleting three lifeguard captain positions, deleting one boat guard captain and replacing four lifeguard officer positions with four part-time lifeguard supervisors, and eliminating night time/standby pay. A net savings of $700,000 per year, a 15 percent reduction. Total of seven positions deleted.
"I think proposal A is a viable proposal," Kiff said, "but it reflects a model that arguably the community isn't ready for. There are some things that need to be tested over time [part-time permanent positions]. There is a way to do that without hurting current jobs. We do have time. This is a two-year proposal."
Thirteen full time employees (includes Junior Lifeguard administrator position), adds one chief position, changes three battalion chiefs to section chiefs, deletes boat captain (leaving no boat captain) and two lifeguard captains (leaving five), eliminating the cadet program and two lifeguard officer positions (leaving two). Adjusts night/standby pay and overtime pay. Net savings is $600,000 with total of four deleted positions.
(Staffing is dynamic and needs to accommodate shifts, vacations, training, and leave which is why proposed staff is a decimal number.)