EDITORIAL: Saving dollars, not lives

IN few areas of service delivery is Newcastle City Council's duty of care to the public more plainly on show than beach safety.

For decades, the council has provided comprehensive life-saving services, a commitment that has certainly helped ensure no lives have been lost on the city's professionally patrolled beaches in about 40 years.

Now, despite many warnings, the council has decided to reduce this commitment in pursuit of budgetary savings.

As part of its cost-cutting the council has shortened the beach patrol season, during the weekends of which it is substituting volunteers for paid staff.

It's a troubling decision that some have suggested may prove to be a false economy.

Save the Newcastle Lifeguards campaign spokesman Ted Bassingthwaighte, for example, has observed that Newcastle Beach's long-standing status as a patrolled beach may have left some unaware that the patrol season has been changed.

This may be highly relevant, both practically and legally, in the light of Sunday's near miss at Newcastle where a young swimmer had to be rescued from a rip by a friend because the council had withdrawn its lifeguards.

From the council's perspective it may be argued that no matter when the patrol season starts and ends, people may still choose to go swimming when no lifesavers are present. It is also fair to note that the new, reduced season is in line with some other coastal councils.

But from the public's point of view, the whole issue of council budgetary reform revolves around costs and benefits.

Scarcely a ratepayer could be found in the city of Newcastle who would argue with the general proposition that there are big savings to be made at the council.

Allegations of excessive bureaucracy, inflexible administration and opaque purchasing and contracting practices have been levelled at the council on more than one occasion, and the present elected council certainly has a mandate to explore all avenues on behalf of frustrated ratepayers.

But when it comes to trimming budgets, a sense of proportion and balance is vital.

It is said that the council is hoping to save about $150,000 by slashing its lifesaving services.

One might suppose that, considering how relatively small this sum is, and also how relatively important the services are in a city that quite rightly promotes its beach and surf culture as a major selling point, decision-makers would have looked for bigger and less dangerous savings.

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