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County Moves to Scrap Beach Contracts

May 18, 1986|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Citing an increase in personal injury claims and the high cost of running beaches and piers, Los Angeles County is canceling its operating agreements with several South Bay cities.

The county Department of Beaches and Harbors has sent letters to officials in Los Angeles and Hermosa Beach and has drafted letters to Avalon, Palos Verdes Estates and Redondo Beach that give the cities the required one-year notice of cancellation, county officials said.

The cancellations are the first step in an effort by the department to negotiate new contracts that the county hopes will shift to the cities some of the financial burden of operating and maintaining the beaches and piers, the officials said.

Stop Providing Maintenance

In the case of Los Angeles, the county wants to withdraw from operating Cabrillo Beach and the Cabrillo and Venice piers. In Hermosa Beach, the county wants to stop providing maintenance for the city pier, according to the letters.

In Avalon, the county hopes to give up maintenance of the beach because of its remote location and difficulties in hiring maintenance workers on Santa Catalina Island, said Kenneth Johnson, chief of community services for the county department. In Palos Verdes Estates and Redondo Beach, the county hopes to share some of the costs of maintaining the beaches with the cities, he said.

"To compound an already difficult financial situation, we are faced with an alarming increase in personal injury claims arising out of the county's operation of beaches," wrote Ted Reed, director of the county department, in a letter to Hermosa Beach. "The result is that the county is reviewing all of its agreements because it cannot continue to operate beaches for other agencies without some significant revenue from the operation and relief from the potential liability."

In a similar letter to James Hadaway, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, Reed said the county no longer wants to provide lifeguard, maintenance, parking or concession services at Cabrillo Beach. Reed said, however, that the county plans to continue providing services at other city-owned or leased beaches, such as Dockweiler, Venice and Will Rogers, although operations at those beaches will also come under review during contract negotiations.

In both the letters to Hermosa Beach and the one to Los Angeles, Reed said the county intends to relinquish all responsibility for piers. "We have also determined that the operation of piers is not within the scope of this department's mission," the letter to Hadaway said.

Johnson said the county has also been negotiating with the state for a new agreement for operating state-owned beaches in Manhattan Beach, Malibu and Redondo Beach (portions of Redondo Beach are state owned, county owned and city owned, Johnson said). The county has been operating those beaches without a contract since 1981, when the state's 25-year agreement with the county expired, he said.

"We have told all of these entities that we want to renegotiate our contracts," Johnson said. "We want to get more favorable terms. We are in a very negative cash-flow situation in terms of beach operations."

Johnson said the county spends more money operating beaches and piers than it collects. He said the county Department of Beaches and Harbors has an annual operating budget for beaches of $12 million, while it collects just $4.5 million from parking, concessions and other facilities at the beaches.

The operation of piers in particular, he said, has exposed the county to liability risks that it does not want to bear any longer. Johnson said the department has not compiled statistics on the number of liability claims the county faces, but he pointed to pending cases involving the Manhattan Beach pier as examples of what the county wants to avoid.

Man Paralyzed

A Redondo Beach man, George Benda, has sued the city, county and state for $20 million in damages stemming from an incident on Aug. 23, 1984, when he was stretching under the Manhattan Beach pier before jogging on the beach. A 150-pound concrete slab broke off from the aging pier and struck Benda, 46, leaving him paralyzed. The pier is in Manhattan Beach, but is owned by the state and operated by the county.

Last month, in a related suit, a Torrance Superior Court judge ruled that Benda's wife may also sue because of loss of sexual relations with the man, who was her boyfriend at the time of the accident.

"The public is becoming more and more litigious," Johnson said. "We can take the responsibility of lifeguarding the beach

and beach maintenance, but we don't want to be responsible for acts of God at older facilities that the state hasn't kept up."

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