Workshop participants see a 6th cent on county bed tax as the only way to finance a lifeguard program

PANAMA CITY BEACH — It didn’t take long for a joint city-Bay County workshop on beach safety to reach a consensus that a comprehensive lifeguard program is badly needed for the 18.5-mile beachfront here.

It took even less time for participants in the workshop, held at the Lyndell Conference Center on Tuesday, to agree that the most likely source of revenue — adding a sixth cent to the county bed tax on tourist lodgings — would be an uphill struggle.

The workshop was organized in response to a spike in drownings this year, with nine fatalities to date, matching the previous all-time high numbers recorded in 2003 and 2008. In an earlier presentation to the Tourist Development Council on Tuesday, the director of emergency medicine at the Bay Medical Center ER facility on Richard Jackson Boulevard, called the spike in drownings “a public health emergency.” In addition to the nine fatalities, there were 47 incidents where a rescued swimmer required hospitalization, said Dr. Jack Scott the ER director.

Beach safety experts nationwide argue that the only effective solution to minimize open water drownings is a lifeguard program featuring a series of manned lifeguard stations reinforced by roving beach patrols. The current Walton County lifeguard program, with a proposed 2020 budget of $1.5 million, quickly attracted the interest of several officials.

Noting that the Bay County Tourist Development Council currently provides $907,000 for beach safety to the city and county on a 50-50 share, Councilman Geoff McConnell said, “It seems like we’re just $500,000 off” the amount it would take.

Others disagreed. Mayor Mike Thomas said it won’t be easy to get the state Legislature to approve increasing the Bay County bed tax beyond its current cap of 5 cents per dollar per night for each room.

Councilman Paul Casto, who said he strongly supports a push to get the sixth cent approved, said it would generate more than $4 million in revenue per year, more than covering the cost of a lifeguard program that mirrors the 14-year-old Walton County system.

David Vaughan, Beach Safety Director for the South Walton Fire District, told the workshop that his proposed 2020 budget will provide 55 seasonal lifeguards manning 14 lifeguard towers along the 27-mile Walton beachfront. In total, five miles of the beach are covered by the static lifeguard stations while a backup roving patrol covers the rest. The seasonal lifeguard service operates 245 days a year, from March 1 until late October, he said.

“You guys have the resources to do this,” Vaughan told the city and county leaders.

Andy Phillips, a member of the Bay TDC board, cautioned otherwise. “Adding a sixth cent would be very difficult.” Thomas noted that as of today, Bay County and Panama City Beach are not considered a “high density” tourism market required under current law to be eligible to levy the sixth cent.

Casto later rejoined, “At this point, I think we’re No. 1 in the state of Florida in drownings.”

The subject of public-private partnerships for creating open water lifeguard services came up at one point. Vaughan said that the South Walton Fire District has contracts to provide lifeguard towers along the beachfront owned by two private communities, Rosemary Beach and Sandestin.

In reply, David Chapman, whose family owns the Royal American company that operates the Boardwalk Beach Resort, said he would be open to exploring how major resorts and hotels here might join with the city and county on similar projects.

“I would like to sit down with you and try to work something out,” Chapman said.

The freewheeling discussion also touched on improving beach safety and the need to crack down on people who violate the ban on swimming when double red flags are flying.

Beach resident Mike Landis told the gathering that city and county officials should expand the current program of beach “ambassadors” with volunteers who could walk the beach during critical surf conditions to warn beachgoers about the dangers and to advise them on the double red flag prohibition. Resident Joe Hajik presented a proposal drafted by his 12-year-old son, Kaial Hajik, calling for deploying flotation gear and other safety devices at the public beach access points as a stopgap measure for beachgoers to assist swimmers in distress.

City and county officials agreed on the importance of enforcing the double red flag ban on swimming.

“I really believe that if we make an effort on enforcement it will make a difference,” said Councilman Hector Solis.

Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford told the group that he has given “my full blessing” to his Beach Patrol officers to aggressively enforce the county’s existing ordinance by levying civil fines and misdemeanor arrests for violators. City Council last week enacted a similar law for its 9.5-mile beachfront.

In the end, the issue of financing a full lifeguard program remains the key unanswered question.

“The possibility of changing the bed tax law is very slim right now,” Griffitts said. “We’re going to put some real effort into finding solutions.”

“This is an issue and a problem,” McConnell said. “What can we do as a community to solve this?”