JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – A spat between the city of Jacksonville Beach and the Volunteer Life Saving Corps appears to have ended, and it’s not on common terms.
City leaders had been negotiating with a group of volunteer guards for months but now is ending those talks, after the city manager claims some volunteers intimidated and harassed staff lifeguards this weekend. Volunteers deny any harassment.
Many beachgoers don’t notice the difference, but for decades, two groups protected the coastline. Professional guards with Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue manned towers and were on patrol Monday through Saturday. They’re paid by the city. Then, on Sundays and holidays, the volunteers took over, giving the guards a rest and taxpayers a break.
Volunteers went through extensive training and certification just like professional guards.
The Volunteer Life Saving Corps, a 501c3 nonprofit that pays for services through fundraising, started 110 years ago, in 1912. Since then, members have donated their time to keep swimmers safe.
However, that tradition appears to have ended this week. It’s outlined in a letter Jacksonville Beach City Manager Mike Staffopoulos sent to the Volunteer Life Saving Corps’ board of directors.
In the message, Staffopoulos noted that negotiations were underway to come to an agreement, but this past Sunday, around 50 volunteers descended on the station and got in the way of the paid guards. He said it caused “city staff to feel extremely uncomfortable, intimidated, and harassed.” Because of this, he said, the city was ending negotiations and barring volunteers from entering the lifeguard tower, which they traditionally shared with paid guards.
City leaders declined to comment on camera for this story, but they provided the letter for context.
Charles Bond, a longtime volunteer guard and the past president of the Volunteer Life Saving Corps, said he was in the negotiations with the city to keep the partnership going.
“I’m a little bit sad, a little bit angry, a little bit confused,” he told News4JAX. “We felt like we were on the road to success and a path forward.”
Bond said he was aware of the allegations that volunteers harassed staff members on Sunday, but he contests he saw none of that. He said they were at the building to recruit more volunteers and commemorate two more volunteer guards completing training and joining the organization.
“I was down here from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” he said. “I didn’t witness anything personally. I have numerous accounts from the members that were here. But, unfortunately, the city doesn’t know that because they never called us to ask.”
Negotiations had been underway since December when the U.S. Department of Labor ordered the city to backpay professional guards who also volunteered. That cost Jacksonville Beach $250,000. The federal agency began investigating after a former guard filed a lawsuit taking issue with paid guards also volunteering. Having paid guards on Sunday and holidays should cost the taxpayers an additional $125,000 a year, Staffopoulos said in an email to News4JAX.
This historic building where guards are headquartered is also a point of contention. The American Red Cross owns the building, but it’s on city property. Now, according to the letter, the city has changed the locks and banned volunteers from entering, which Bond says is not right. The letter notes that gear from the Volunteer Life Saving Corps would be returned to them if they provided a receipt or proof of ownership.
Despite the tension, Bond said he is still “100 percent” willing to negotiate with the city and keep the 110-year tradition alive.
City leaders want to point out that there will still be guards on the beach on Sunday and holidays, from now on they’ll just be paid city employees.