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State commits to pay for lifeguards at Makena Beach Park

The matter of legal liablity remains a ‘big concern’ for county lawmakers

The Maui News

Maui County has received a letter of intent from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources calling for the county to continue providing lifeguard service at Makena Beach Park, a state recreational area.

The issue of staffing and paying for lifeguard services is a related but separate issue from a measure vetoed earlier this year by Gov. David Ige. That bill would have required the state attorney general to defend Maui County lifeguards from lawsuits involving injuries at Makena.

An Aug. 17 letter from Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case to Mayor Alan Arakawa says the department’s Division of State Parks has been working with the Maui Fire Department to update a memorandum of agreement for lifeguard services at Makena that expired on June 30.

“This letter of intent is to request that the County of Maui continue to provide critical lifeguard services at Makena Beach State Recreation Area and that the department will reimburse the county for lifeguard salaries starting on July 1, 2017, until such time as the amendment to the (memorandum of agreement) is signed.”

County Budget Director Lynn Araki-Regan said there’s a little more than $1.2 million budgeted annually for 10.5 lifeguard positions at Makena.

The county needed at least a letter of intent from the state to have assurance that it would pay the county for lifeguards working at Makena, she said.

With the letter in hand, there’s an expectation for the state to provide funds for the lifeguards’ payroll expenses, she said.

While the matter of liability remains a “big concern” for the county, Araki-Regan said the more immediate matter was getting the state to commit to paying for the lifeguards.

During last year’s legislative session, Maui County state lawmakers attempted to shield county lifeguards from personal injury lawsuits while serving on state beaches. Act 170 provided county lifeguards with limited liability protection at state beach parks, “except for gross negligence or wanton acts or omissions.” The act had been extended every five years, since being passed in 2002, and it expired June 30.

Instead of extending the legal protection for lifeguards, the state House stripped the immunity from the bill and added the provision for the attorney general to defend lifeguards. The Senate passed what was essentially a take-it-or-leave-it measure, but senators pledged to resurrect the issue next year.

Ige’s veto of the measure calling for the attorney general to defend county lifeguards was seen by county officials as making little difference because lifeguards would still be susceptible to lawsuits.

In vetoing the lifeguard bill, Ige said he found it “objectionable because it requires the attorney general to defend the counties for any civil action or proceeding, without exception.”

Though the broader protections lapsed, Ige said the attorney general will “defend any civil action or proceeding based on acts or omissions of county lifeguards working on state beaches that are within the scope of the lifeguard’s duties.”