Drownings on Walton County beaches prompt boost in beach safety spending
SANTA ROSA BEACH — Visitors and residents in Walton County can expect to see more beach safety messaging for the remainder of this tourist season and next season as the result of a Tuesday directive to the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) from county commissioners.
With a unanimous vote, commissioners directed TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa to more than double the budget for beach safety messaging, from $101,000 to $240,000, through Sept. 30, the end of the county's fiscal year, and to have at least the same level of spending in place for next year.
The directive came as Tusa was presenting the TDC's media plan for the upcoming fiscal year, which included the $101,000 allocation for beach safety messaging, the same as the current fiscal year.
The commission's decision directing Tusa to spend the additional funds for this year and the next year came as the county has seen four visitor drownings in the Gulf of Mexico in the still-early days of this tourist season.
Public safety officials have said many visitors enter the water despite double-red flags indicating the Gulf is closed to swimming and even after they are warned by lifeguards.
Commissioner Danny Glidewell led the effort for the additional spending this year and next year.
"I do think some more should be spent on messaging for our safety efforts this year," Glidewell told Tusa and his commission colleagues.
"We've had the drownings this year," he added.
Tusa, telling commissioners that the increased spending easily could be achieved, added that an initial plan likely would be to use digital resources, including the TDC's social media channels, to get beach safety messages out to visitors, potential visitors and even county residents. That information would, among other things, likely include information about the beach warning flag system and the current status of double-red flag warnings along the county's beaches.
"I think digital and social is probably the most effective, the most responsive, the quickest (safety messaging) to get up and running," Tusa said, "and we have a program for that, so I definitely think that is something that we can look to do."
Beyond that, Tusa said the TDC could change the messaging on the billboards used to welcome visitors to the beaches of South Walton County to educate them on beach safety protocols. Similarly, Tusa added that the TDC could use its print presence in small newspapers along the county's beaches for safety education.
The directive to Tusa came at the same meeting that commissioners approved the creation of a beach safety working group, a fact-finding body that will at some point present a report to the commission. The group will include at least representatives of the Walton County Sheriff's Office, the South Walton Fire District, the county's Code Compliance and Emergency Management offices and the TDC.
With an eye toward potential recommendations that might be forthcoming from the working group, Commissioner Mike Barker suggested that plans be made for some TDC funds to be directed toward any of that work for which its dollars could be used. Among other things, the TDC — funded with proceeds of a 5% accommodations tax assessed on visitors to the southern end of the county — covers costs of lifeguards and a Beach Ambassador program that provides assistance to people on those beaches.