HCC cut to life saving funding 'risk to lives'

MARYANNE TWENTYMAN
Last updated 05:00 17/11/2012

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Pressure is mounting on Hamilton City Council to rethink its cut in funding for lifeguard services at Waikato beaches this summer.

One of the region's most popular summer spots, Hot Water Beach, is looking at reduced lifeguard resources due to a $6000 shortfall in funding from the council.

Surf Life Saving Eastern Region manager Chris Emmett said Hot Water Beach's growth as a popular tourist destination meant hours patrolling the beach should be increased, not slashed.

"We are definitely faced with cutting back on the amount of time paid guards can be on duty," he said.

"I'd like to think it wouldn't cost lives, but you shouldn't run that risk."

Funding cuts have also led to reduced hours at two west coast Waikato beaches, Ngarunui Beach, in Raglan, and Sunset Beach, in Port Waikato, though Surf Life Saving Northern Region chief executive Pam Elgar said a pocket of extra funding was found by a Waikato District Council community board.

"Which is fine this year, but what happens in the future," she said.

HCC community general manager Lance Vervoort said the council's decision to reduce such community grants resulted from the need to control the city's debt "to live within our means, and gain financial sustainability".

"This grant was one of a number of grants to community organisations which were reduced or disestablished - Surf Life Saving was not singled out for a grant reduction, and still receives $38,000 annually from council."

The council would not comment on whether a user-pays system should be implemented.

Destination Coromandel manager Hadley Dryden said having patrolled beaches at peak times was crucial for the tourist industry.

"Any adverse effect that happens as a result of visitors coming here spoils the whole experience and has a negative effect on everything we are trying to do," Mr Dryden said. It also negated the effect of a recent marketing campaign by Destination Coromandel dubbed "falling in love with the Coromandel", where Hot Water Beach featured prominently as a popular summer destination.

Mr Emmett commended Thames Coromandel District Council for its financial support of the important summer service, but said with more people flowing into the Coromandel from the greater Waikato region, other councils needed to step up.

He said early predictions of a hot summer meant the lifeguard service faced the potential of a record level of incident responses. "As far as staffing goes we are in great shape. Last month at the regional lifeguard trials in Whangamata we had 150 guards turn up to try out for 90 positions, which means we have had a high level of experienced guards applying."

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Mr Emmett said he had hoped to extend the life guard services into March next year, but that it was now unlikely.

Coromandel MP Scott Simpson said that while he was concerned about the capacity of life guards patrolling eastern beaches he understood that "times were tough" in terms of council funding.

"I am aware that surf lifesaving is vigorous in terms of finding other funding streams," he said. "It is not my place to get involved in council decision-making."

- Waikato Times

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