Beaufort News

Plan to put lifeguards at Hunting Island still in works

A plan to station lifeguards at Hunting Island State Park is getting "a little tight, time-wise" if the program is to begin by Memorial Day, state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism director Duane Parrish said.

Before the state can put lifeguards in chairs, it must figure out how to put money in their pockets.

Parrish estimated total cost the first year would be about $150,000 because of equipment purchases, and between $75,000 and $80,000 for subsequent years.

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said legislators are working to find funding for half of the first-year costs.

"We're not on hold," Parrish added. "We've got everything ready to go. We can pull the trigger when we get word back from the Beaufort County (Legislative) Delegation."

Lifeguards would be in place through Labor Day, and the program could get a late start if funding is not nailed down by Memorial Day, Parrish said.

A delay is likely unless funding is secured in the next week or so, he added, because it will take about 30 to 45 days to purchase equipment and hire nine lifeguards and one supervisor, as proposed.

PRT has been working with legislators to bring lifeguards to Hunting Island's beaches since Hilton Head Island attorney Russell Patterson began pushing for their return this past fall. Patterson, whose family has a cottage on Hunting Island, said he was spurred to action by the deaths of three people who drowned off the park's north beach in July. Six people have drowned in the past four years at the park, Patterson said.

Hunting Island has not had lifeguards since 1998, in part because it was becoming difficult to find qualified people to work at the remote park, state officials have said.

At a meeting in March, PRT officials suggested Beaufort County kick in half the costs. Parrish said there's precedent for that request, as the state has a $30,000 annual contract with Horry County for lifeguards at the two state parks in Myrtle Beach.

"We, the delegation, (were) supposed to be working on the funding while (PRT) worked on getting everything ready to go," Erickson said.

Erickson said legislators are holding off on requesting county funding until they exhaust other options.

County administrator Gary Kubic said a formal request with information on costs, program details and park finances would be needed before county officials could consider funding. Money could come from accommodations taxes levied on overnight lodging to fund programs that promote tourism and attract visitors, he said.

"We share a common goal with the state, but without knowing specifics, we don't know what they're asking," Kubic said.

Depending on how much is requested, Kubic said, the decision could be made by a finance committee in one meeting.

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Related content: State parks director calls lifeguards at Hunting Island 'end goal', March 5, 2014

Flag warning system set for Hunting Island; adding lifeguards still being considered, Feb. 1, 2014

Area legislators to help pitch Hunting Island lifeguards plan to state parks and recreation director, Jan. 9, 2014

Effort to post lifeguards on Hunting Island beach heads to Columbia, Dec. 29, 2013