Volunteer lifeguards now suing Jacksonville Beach in ongoing spat

The Volunteer Life Saving Corps has been active for 110 years

A spat between the city of Jacksonville Beach and the Volunteer Life Saving Corps that appeared to have ended might not be over quite yet.

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – A spat between the city of Jacksonville Beach and the Volunteer Life Saving Corps that appeared to have ended might not be over quite yet.

Talks between the city and the Volunteer Life Saving Corps (VLSC) -- sparked by a federal investigation into the number of hours lifeguards worked and volunteered -- ended earlier this month when the city stopped negotiating.

Now the volunteers are suing the city for refusing to comply with the agreement it made with the Corps in 2016, which the volunteers say was good for 10 years and called for the VLSC to guard the beaches on Sundays and holidays.

The VLSC said it’s also been locked out of the lifeguard station -- which the lawsuit alleges is also a violation of the 2016 agreement.

This fight between the volunteers and the city is hitting Tim Saggau hard. “I joined in the winter of 1972. My son joined in 2001,” Saggu said. “Two of my daughters married lifeguards. It’s in the family.”

He’s the president of the board for the Volunteer Life Saving Corps.

Jacksonville Beach City Manager, Mike Staffopoulos, responded to the VLSC on Friday afternoon with a letter that reads in part:

The City is required by law to change our existing relationship because of a ruling by the Department of Labor (DOL) prohibiting current City employees from volunteering with the Corps, which had been done in the past. That DOL ruling resulted in the City paying $250,000 in back wages. The City is required to change its procedures to comply with the law. In addition, the City and its taxpayers face liability risks due to differences between staff and volunteers related to standard employment practices and policies, the City’s code of conduct and core values, the enforcement of City standards for volunteers, and other issues.

READ: LETTER FROM JACKSONVILLE BEACH TO VLSC

The VLSC said the city gave the 110-year-old nonprofit organization a nine-month notice of contract termination on April 5, which bars the VLSC from future access to the station -- and that’s when the locks were changed. The VLSC said the American Red Cross owns the station building, while the city owns the land.

“We are still hopeful of getting back to the table with them (the city) -- but he (Mike Staffopoulos) kind of left us with no choice because he locked us out of the station and he suspended negotiations on April 5,” Saggau said.

The lawsuit alleges those actions violate the terms of its Nov. 21, 2016, written agreement with the city, which states: “The term of this Agreement shall be (10) years from the date of execution, and shall thereafter continue in effect on a year-to-year basis, unless terminated by any party upon (9) months written notice in advance.”

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Things went sour after the April 3 graduation ceremony at the lifeguard station. In the letter, the city manager accused the volunteers of disrupting and harassing the paid guards. Saggau says that’s just not true. But Staffopoulos banned the volunteers from the building they share with city guards – and canceled future negotiations.

The lifeguards argue that the city’s decision to lock up the lifeguard station effectively terminates their agreement unilaterally -- with no notice.

The VLSC said the city is contending the contract isn’t enforceable because of an ongoing labor dispute but the VLSC believes it is and wants a judge to decide the matter.

Last week, News4JAX reported that Jacksonville Beach was doing away with the volunteer lifeguards after city leaders stopped talks with the VLSC, saying volunteers intimidated and harassed staff lifeguards. The volunteers denied any harassment.

For decades, two groups have 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.

City leaders pointed out that there will still be guards on the beach on Sundays and holidays, from now on they’ll just be paid city employees.

It is estimated that the additional staffing to replace the VLSC’s volunteer guards will cost Jacksonville Beach taxpayers an additional $125,000 per year.

In a statement Friday, a city spokesperson said they are “aware of and saddened by the lawsuit brought against it by the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps…[adding] the City will continue to provide uninterrupted lifesaving services to all of the citizens and visitors who enjoy its beaches year-round.”

The VLSC is asking the public to voice their support for the future of the all-volunteer organization by attending the Jacksonville Beach City Council Meeting on Monday April 18 at 6 pm in the Council Chambers at City Hall, and by contacting the Mayor, City Manager and their Council Members.


About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.