LIHUE — A proposed roving Jet Ski patrol program stayed afloat Monday in the wake of intense scrutiny of the county’s police and fire budgets.
Faced with mounting costs associated mandatory salary increases as part of the county’s collective bargaining process, Fire Chief Robert Westerman said his department plans to stand firm on its request for six part-time employees to outfit three roving Ski Patrol units.
“It’s the biggest new expense we’re looking at, but it will ultimately lower staffing costs by eliminating the need for new standing lifeguard stations that would require full-time employees,” the chief said.
Those new hires would eliminate the need for staffing requests elsewhere in the tight budget, Westerman said.
While councilmembers indicated support for the request, there were some reservations, too.
“What we’re looking at is a budget process that continues to test the ability and patience of the council to hold the line in fiscal environment that is increasingly difficult to manage,” said Gary Hooser.
Some council members said a higher level of state appropriations should be pursued, in particular when it relates to funding requirements made necessary by visitors.
Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura said she supports hiring new fire officials to staff the roving ski patrols, but said the funding should come from the state’s transient tax — not county coffers.
Westerman agreed, noting that 78 percent of the people requiring county assistance from emergency patrols in unprotected areas are men ages 55-67 who live outside Kauai.
“It’s tourists out there who are not paying attention and putting our personnel in danger,” she said. “It makes perfect sense to go back to the state with our hands out.”
As the state continues to place more restrictions on the transient accommodation taxes, however, collecting those payments will become increasingly difficult, Yukimura pointed out.
If funding is approved, the county would have to seek about $100,000 to fund the six fire officials manning the Jet Skis. Westerman pointed out tha a single lifeguard tower costs the county about $400,000 per year.
The Jet Ski patrols would perform daily periodic checks on unguarded beaches with relatively high rates of incidents. Those beaches include Lumahai, Anini, Larsen’s, Wailua, Kalapaki, Shipwreck’s, Mahaulepu, and Kekaha.
“Ultimately, the Ski Patrols would be more cost effective, protecting against a crisis before it occurs daily along unprotected beaches,” said Andy Melamed, a long-time Kauai lifeguard who is pushing for the program funding.