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Lifeguards off chopping block, back on budget



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April 25, 2012 - It seemed final. It seemed the topic was closed, but as of the April 19 Lake Orion Village budget meeting, the Green's Park lifeguards are once again on the budget.

A March 8 meeting determined the village would exclude the price of keeping the lifeguards from the budget proceedings, yet the issue sparked controversy. Meetings would usually feature at least one proponent or opponent to the lifeguards, but following a survey put out by Lake Orion's Parks and Recreation which revealed 55 percent of village residents would prefer to keep the lifeguards with a fee for park use, opinions on the council began to sway.

45 percent of the respondants preferred to keep park entry free-of-charge at the expense of no lifeguards.

Following a presentation by the Parks and Recreation department, the council voted four to two (Michael Toth, Doug Hobbs voted nay, Shauna Brown was absent) in favor of factoring in the cost of lifeguards. Stan Ford, a Lake Orion High School Track Coach and a Green's Park Lifeguard of 31 years, said he had no idea which way the council would vote.

"I don't know. I didn't know which way it was going to go," Ford. "I think when this first came up in the budget, it was not on the agenda and so they had no other input. It came up and they excluded it from the budget and then they started getting a reaction."

Still, Ford realized the budget is no easy issue and said he understands the whole situation puts "everyone in a tough spot." This is a view shared by six-year-councilman Toth who was an opponent of the lifeguards in Green's Park due to the budget constraints. He said while "of course he preferred to keep the lifeguards," the inclusion of them on the budget only made matters more difficult for the village.

"The council members voted with what people they knew wanted to do instead of what needed to be done based on facts and figures," said Toth. "Instead of eliminating $100,000 from the budget, we tacked on $5,500. The result of this is that we will have to raise taxes. There is no way we can save that much from the general and police fund only and that's all we have left."

Village Manager Paul Zelenak wanted to clarify that while a tax increase is possible, the more likley happenstance is a millage increase (which could still lead to a tax increase.) He explained that the council does not raise taxes - it determines the millage rate.

"The council has weighed the options including cutting staff and raising the millage rate," said Zelenak. "We just want to be able to provide the services the residents here expect and deserve."

Toth admitted while he believes a tax increase is likely, he said there may be other options but doesn't believe they will happen. He wanted people to understand that if there is an increase in taxes for village residents, it would likely be permanent instead of temporary. He believes if this eventually does happen, the people who "we don't hear from are going to be pretty upset."

"We screwed them last year with streetscape and this summer was supposed to be their chance to make up for that," he said. "I feel terrible about what happened during streetscape. Instead of them making up for what happened, we're going to have to raise taxes.

"This is no one's fault in particular but the council has a responsibility to work around problems like this. We're taking the easy way out."

Ford, however, believes the lifeguards are worth the extra cost - an amount which he pointed out was low considering the services provided. Safety is always his primary concern and according to Ford the park gets a lot of attention from both the roadside and the lakeside.

"I've been there and based on a daily basis you see a lot of things happen," he said. "You see people attempting to bring alcohol into the park or doing things that are just unsafe and we stop them. Knowing all that, I was fearful of what would happen when people found out there was no one to stop them.

"The whole budget for the lifeguards was $20,000 and money that has come in the past has covered all but a little bit. It ends up costing the taxpayers $5,000 or $6,000 and for a $20,000 program thats pretty cheap. "

Still, Toth remains disappointed in the council decision. He said he would never vote to increase taxes - he instead expressed interest in seeing what a village shutdown looked like. He was curious to see what the people of Lake Orion would actually lose.

"I don't think the village should or will shutdown, but this whole thing just seems like we're giving up too early," he said. "I think we are just taking more money instead of solving the problem. We did the comfortable thing."

Green's Park is located on M-24 just south of Flint Street.

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