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Vancouver park board considers cuts to lifeguarding, maintenance

Lifeguards at Locarno Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday July 4, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Eliminating lifeguards at some of Vancouver's public beaches. Reducing park maintenance by another half-million. Requiring every community-centre manager to run two centres from now on, instead of one.

Those were some of the changes the Vancouver park board was considering Monday night to trim its budget by $2.4-million down to $104-million. Vision Vancouver park trustees say those changes are all about being efficient in lean times.

"With the city shortfall and tough economic times ahead, it is our responsibility to address our spending and look very closely at what we can be doing better with the taxpayers' dollars," chair Constance Barnes said.

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But Non-Partisan Association trustee John Coupar says the park board is being squeezed so hard by the city that its staff is being forced to recommend "silly" cuts, like $270,000 worth of lifeguarding.

"I really think staff are at the wall and that's why these things are coming up," said Mr. Coupar, who says this year's cuts are part of a pattern that has been going on since Vision took control of the city and park board. "I am hoping that common sense will prevail, but I think it makes us look a little foolish."

In fact, it appeared Monday that not all the recommended changes to lifeguarding services would go through.

Staff had recommended focusing lifeguards on the city's highest-use beaches: English Bay, Kitsilano Beach, Locarno, Spanish Bank East, Third Beach.

That would eliminate lifeguards at Trout Lake – a small lake on Vancouver's east side – Jericho, Sunset, Spanish Bank West and Second Beach. Lifeguards at outdoor pools, open during the summer, would be unaffected.

Usually, the city hires 36 lifeguards for the summer for both pools and beaches. The proposed cuts would affect four beach positions.

Ms. Barnes said the lifeguard at Trout Lake did not seem that useful. "Why do we have a lifeguard posted at a location that is contaminated and has signage that clearly states No Swimming?" she asked.

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But she said she and her fellow trustees would have to look at the statistics for the lifeguards at the other beaches recommended for cuts to see what kinds of incidents they were dealing with.

"Are the 182 incidents reported over the last four years all water-related or are do they include things like unruly teens, sunburns and slivers in the feet?" she said.

However, Mr. Coupar said it's a shame issues like this – an echo of the move to cut park washrooms last year, which Vision park trustees scrambled to reverse after a public backlash – are even arising.

He said the problem is that the city now controls the park budget and dictates large cuts, while it spends money on items such as electric car-charging and other green-city initiatives.

He is particularly worried about another cut to park maintenance, a budget item that has taken many hits in the last few years.

For 2012, the park board is anticipating $103.8-million in expenses and $47.9-million in revenue. The gap is covered by money from the city.

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The board will get an extra $700,000 from the city because of savings produced when the city and park board meshed their garbage-collection services. But that's not enough to cover the increased expenses. So city managers have asked the park board to come up with the 2.3-per-cent budget cut.

Ms. Barnes said, however, that those cuts have been minimal and have specifically been avoided in areas such as child care, seniors and youth programming, arts, and food programs.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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