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Budget Cuts Are Sinking Lifeguards Some Idaho Beaches Go Unguarded So State Can Save Money On Employees

The man in the raft laughed as he rowed away from the family swimming toward him.

A girl among the swimmers was falling behind.

“Dad, help me, I can’t swim,” she yelped.

Everything turned out OK. The man in the raft stopped paddling, and the girl grabbed the side of the raft. A few minutes later, she swam back to the beach.

Above the Lake Pend Oreille beach, the lifeguard chairs sat, empty.

Farragut’s Beaver Bay beach was built in 1967 as a swimming area. It attracts hundreds of people on hot summer weekends. There never has been a drowning there, according to park manager Bryan Rowder, and there always have been lifeguards.

Until now.

The lifeguards are gone, victims of the state budget-cutting ax. Lifeguards have been eliminated at Farragut and three state parks in southern Idaho: Lucky Peak, Hell’s Gate and Eagle Island.

The lifeguards make up $20,000 out of the $90,000 the Batt administration and Legislature cut for temporary summer park employees this year. Farragut’s lifeguard costs, Rowder said, were about $12,000 per year.

Now swimmers there are greeted by a large orange sign.

“Warning - Unguarded Waters,” the signs read. “Swimming Not Recommended.”

But no one was taking that seriously Sunday, as temperatures rose into the 80s under a baking sun. Children squealed and bobbed on life rafts and floats. Paunchy fathers belly-flopped into the water. Children explored the bottom with diving masks.

“They should have lifeguards here,” said Colleen Hanning of Spirit Lake. “As long as parents are watching, it’s OK. But a lot of times they’re not watching.”

Diana Hickman of Spokane was tossing a stick for her dog, Gizmo.

“With all the children, lifeguards are extremely important,” she said. “It would be a lot safer. The life of a child is worth a lot more than 12 grand.”

“I wouldn’t expect the lifeguard to watch them. I’m the one who’s responsible,” said Bill Davis of Spokane. “But I appreciate the safety factor, with their special training and everything.”

Legislative budget writers had similar reactions when Parks and Recreation Director Yvonne Ferrell first proposed eliminating the lifeguards as part of Gov. Phil Batt’s campaign to tighten the budget.

But Ferrell said numerous other states have done away with state park lifeguards because parents were relying on them to baby-sit children.

“Now and then, you get into the parenting business, instead of the lifeguarding business. It’s kind of taking advantage of the lifeguards,” said Rowder, the park manager.

He said the lifeguards dived in to rescue struggling swimmers two or three times last year. Their presence also discouraged rowdiness, dogs and glass bottles on the beach, he said. Now park rangers patrol the beach a couple of times a day, he said.

“I’m not as worried about the safety factor as I am about rowdiness,” he said. “If people are sensible, it won’t be a problem.”

“We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo