LIHUE — Anini Beach will be getting lifeguards.
The Kauai County Council on Wednesday approved funding for three new lifeguard positions to address safety concerns at North Shore beaches crowded with visitors during the winter season.
The Kauai Fire Department submitted a request to the council in November, proposing that leftover funds in the department’s budget be reallocated to pay for three new positions — two full time and one part time — in KFD’s Ocean Safety Bureau.
The bill passed the council’s initial review unanimously in December, but during Wednesday’s meeting, support was less enthusiastic. The bill passed in a 6-1 vote, with Councilmember KipuKai Kuali‘i dissenting.
It’s not certain when the new lifeguards will be on duty at Anini Beach Park.
Recreational beach activity on the North Shore is up as the winter season progresses, but roads damaged by last year’s floods remain closed, leaving several popular beaches beyond Hanalei inaccessible to most.
With less room to spread out, crowds drawn by the season’s big waves and beautiful conditions are packing onto the remaining beaches, and KFD officials say more manpower is needed to ensure visitors are safe.
“We felt that it created an emergency situation at Anini,” Kauai Lifeguard Association President Dr. Monty Downs said Wednesday after the council meeting.
According to Downs, the OSB has recently only been able to dispatch roving patrols to North Shore beaches like Anini a few times a week at most. Once the additional positions are filled, Downs said he hopes those patrols will be in place seven days a week.
Kuali‘i said he understands the need to address the public safety issue but insisted that funding for the positions — the combined cost is about $186,000 annually — is too large an expense to be approved without a thorough review.
“I know many would say we can’t not do it, but it should be part of the bigger discussion on the budget,” he said.
Kuali‘i also expressed concerns about how the added expense will affect the fire department’s budget in the future.
“There’s continuing expenses. This will be in next year’s budget and the following year’s budget without being part of the budget process,” he said, explaining that labor is the county’s largest expense and the council looks at staffing “first and foremost” when seeking opportunities to make budget cuts.
“So even though, this year, it’s a zero-expense because of budget savings, those budget savings every year become part of the surplus and help us with the next year’s budget,” Kuali‘i said.
Councilmember Felicia Cowden said she respects Kuali‘i’s fiscal responsibility, but said she still supports the bill because, with spring break coming up and much of the winter season still remaining, “I think many people could still be hurt. Ultimately, I would always pass this, so I would rather keep people safe right now.”
Councilmember Ross Kagawa said the timing of the bill “bothers me a little bit,” but maintained his support for the bill.
“We have a public safety problem, and that is why we have to break away from our traditional habit of approving these things during the budget,” he said.
Councilmember Mason Chock said he will be supports the bill as well, because “the public safety, at least for me, is something that I cannot overlook at this point.”
“It’s public safety. I’m not gonna deny this. I’m gonna vote for it,” said Councilmember Arthur Brun, but he did express some concern about the spending habits of some fire department officials.
“It’s a new regime, going forward, and hopefully they can be a little more responsible with their money,” he said.
“It’s important for us, given the flood and the massive increase in tourist numbers last year, that we remain nimble,” said Councilmember Luke Evslin. “If we can prevent a drowning, or even if there’s a 25 percent chance of us preventing a drowning by staffing this now, then it’s vitally important.”
Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro also spoke in support of the bill, saying that if the council waited until the budget review process began to approve funding, the OSB would likely have to wait another five months to hire new lifeguards.
“The need is now,” he said.
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.