2007-06-22 / Community

List Of Open Beaches Just A Phone Call Away

But CB14 Says Letters Fall On Deaf Ears
By Brian Magoolaghan

The public can get up-to-date information about which beaches are open by dialing 311 and asking for the Department of Parks and Recreation's Beach Information Hotline.

Once connected to the hotline, callers are prompted to select a borough (Queens is option 3). They then hear a pre-recorded greeting that is updated every morning and lists all of the city beaches that are open in that borough.

The Rockaway-specific message lists open beaches in an east to west progression. Prospective beachgoers also hear important reminders to only swim where lifeguards are present and to leave glass containers and alcoholic beverages at home. The entire call to the city's non-emergency response line, which this week logged its 50-millionth call since its inception in 2003, takes less than five minutes.

You can also call 311 to lodge a complaint with Parks if a particular beach is not open. Although The Wave heard this week that some callers were given the runaround last weekend, a 311 operator asked appropriate questions and was prepared to register a complaint for us when we called on Thursday.

While 311 seems like a reliable way to find out about local beaches, Community Board 14 has discovered that writing Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe on more complex beach/lifeguard issues is not effective. The board recently fired off an angry letter to Benepe, accusing him and his subordinates of ignoring three letters that date back as far as September, 2006.

"Neither you nor your agency has given the board the courtesy of a response to any of these letters," the board's June 8, 2007 letter says. "In response to your agencies [sic] specious claims of not receiving our letters, we have decided that in the future, all letters to you and your staff will be sent return receipt requested and faxed with us keeping a file of confirmation of the fax being received by your office."

The letter says that while the board has "always enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the Parks Department" and that the agency does a "wonderful job," it's "surprised and disappointed in how [Parks] has responded to our concerns" regarding lifeguard issues.

The Wave provided Parks spokesperson Abigail Lootens with a copy of the letter on June 15. After mulling the agency's response for days, Lootens responded June 20 by saying that "because of the volume of mail that the commissioner receives, it usually takes approximately 14 days to respond to correspondence. But the CB letter is in the system to be responded to." Lootens would not address the board's claims that three previous letters were ignored and said nothing of Benepe's response to those claims.

The two major lifeguard-related issues on the minds of the public, elected officials and the community board that we've talked to are the seasonal issue of closed beaches and the ongoing issue of how lifeguards are recruited, trained and tested.

Parks says it has more than 200 lifeguards in Rockaway this year, about the same as last year. But that isn't enough to satisfy beachgoers like Linda Ruscillo, who is tired of seeing red flags blowing on the beach near her Rockaway Park home. Ruscillo called WNBC News last weekend when a 10-block stretch between Rockaway Park and Belle Harbor was closed. Ruscillo said she was pleased to see that beaches were opened within that area shortly thereafter.

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer told The Wave this week that her office has begun tracking the open and closed beaches "to make sure that no beaches are overly neglected."

City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. attributed the recent closures to the annual pre-Fourth of July lifeguard shortage and said he's still focused on guarantees that were made with regard to lifeguard testing. He said he has performed two surprise visits to the West 59 Street Pool in Manhattan in the hopes of seeing the report cards and a prominently displayed digital clock that were the result of recent negotiations between his office, CB14, Parks and the lifeguard union. Addabbo wasn't able to reach a conclusion because lifeguard candidates weren't being tested when he popped in.

"I'm still working on the things that were promised to us," Addabbo said this week. He added that he'll call for additional meetings between the involved parties after the summer.

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