Summer brings millions of visitors – and sometimes dangerous surf – to Bay County beaches. In the wake of several recent drownings and water-related emergencies, county commissioners are now considering ways to make a day at the beach safer.
At Tuesday's board meeting, Commissioner Guy Tunnell suggested posting lifeguards in some unincorporated areas. "I think we've kind of ignored this issue for a long time and it's not going to go away," Tunnell said.
Tunnell said he would like to see lifeguards on duty behind the county's M.B. Miller Pier and Rick Seltzer Park. "I'm not saying we need to put lifeguards every quarter mile or every tenth of a mile up and down the beach, but I think we need to set something in motion, he said. "Hopefully, that will send a message that we're serious about providing for the public safety."
Chairman George Gainer said recent water emergencies brought a sense of urgency to the issue. "This board realizes that there may be something we can do and we need to take a look at it," Gainer said. "I don't know if lifeguards are the answer, but we need to look at lifeguards."
But facing the prospect of another tight budget in Fiscal Year 2014, the board isn't sure how to pay for lifeguards. Commissioner Mike Thomas suggested requiring beach side vendors to supply lifeguards where they do business, much like the City of Panama City Beach does now. "I think it's a way to do it that doesn't cost a whole lot of money," Thomas said. "The cost is borne by the retail merchants on the beach."
Commissioner Tunnell said he would like to explore whether bed tax revenue collected for use by the Tourist Development Council (TDC) could be earmarked for lifeguards. Thomas objected to diverting funds away from the purpose citizens approved when they passed the bed tax referendum. "Those monies are collected to advertise and bring people to the beach and you can't spend TDC dollars unless it enhances the property," Thomas said. "Having the lifeguards doesn't bring more people in and if it doesn't bring more people in it's not a legitimate expenditure."
Commissioners directed county staff to research various options and report back to the board at its July 2 meeting.
In other business, the board passed two policy changes for the Animal Control Division. All fees, fines and donations collected by the animal shelter will now go into a fund specifically set aside for agency activities. Those monies now go into the General Fund.
The board also delegated authority to modify the animal adoption contract to Ed Smith, County Manager, or his designee. Smith said efforts to streamline the adoption process are sometimes "unwieldy" because even small changes have to come before the full board.
Gainer said putting Smith in charge of minor changes makes sense. "The county manager's perfectly capable of making the decisions," Gainer said.
Commissioners also formally accepted a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission artificial reef monitoring grant. The $12,000 grant is funded by saltwater fishing license fees and will pay for a project to identify the exact GPS locations of 35 existing reefs.