To Mel Rapozo, chairman of the Kauai County Council, it’s a no-brainer: lifeguards should be protected from being sued.

But if the Legislature does not act this session, lifeguards will have no protection from civil litigation once a current law expires July 1.

“Over the years there has been a threat that if we don’t get that protection, the mayors may have to pull these lifeguards off state beaches because we can’t afford the liability exposure,” Rapozo said Tuesday at the Capitol. “They are doing their job, and they need protection.”

As Civil Beat reported in its Dying For Vacation series, drowning is the No. 1 killer of visitors. Lifeguards have struggled for better pay and working conditions.

Maui lifeguards made 438 rescues in 2015 at beaches around the island, such as Baldwin Beach Park, seen here. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Rapozo is a member of the Hawaii State Association of Counties. Its 2017 legislative package includes a bill to delete the sunset provision for the liability exceptions for county lifeguards.

To Rapozo, it’s a matter of fairness, given that the state affords protection to its own employees involved in comparable work.

Rapozo also used the fairness factor to argue for another top priority of the counties: a greater share of the taxes levied on hotel guests.

The counties are currently capped annually at $103 million, regardless of how much revenue comes into the state. County officials have argued that they should get more money, given their importance to tourism and the impact on island infrastructure.

Kauai County Council Chair Mel Rapozo says giving legal protection to lifeguards is a matter of fairness. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

The officials have lobbied state lawmakers to return to a previous system in which the counties received a percentage of all hotel tax revenues.

That’s what’s sought under the Hawaii State Association of Counties package of bills, which proposes 55 percent of the transient accommodations tax going to the state and 45 percent to the counties.

“All we are saying is that the Legislature should consider the recommendations of the working group that the Legislature created to study this,” said Rapozo, who noted the group drew on the expertise of many people in public and private sectors. “I believe it is a very fair recommendation. To choose not to address it is to ignore the recommendations of the working group.”

The association is fortunate that it has neighbor island lawmakers leading the House (Speaker Joe Souki of Maui) and the Senate (Sen. Ron Kouchi of Kauai). But there are always many requests from many groups asking for general funds, and there is only so much to go around.

Empty retail space at the HIlo Hawaiian Hotel along Banyan Drive in Hilo, Hawaii. 11 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The counties want a greater share of the state’s hotel tax, generated by establishments such as the Hilo Hawaiian along Banyan Drive on the Big Island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The association held a luncheon at the Capitol on Tuesday to make its pitch. Among those showing up to listen was Kouchi.

Other county legislative priorities of the counties include regulating operators of drones, clarifying rules on allowing council members to attend public meetings and share government records that do not influence positions on votes and the need for money to map critical agricultural lands and pay for for a 24-hour ambulance service on Kauai and the Big Island.

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