City won't close Lions Beach, but drowning investigation continues
A staff member at nearby Rotary Gardens said workers there have been concerned about unsafe activities at the beach since lifeguards were removed in 2001.
The city removed lifeguards on an experimental basis in summer 2001 to save money. The city council made the move permanent in 2002, when former City Manager Steve Sheiffer estimated the city could save about $60,000.
Lions Beach is a spring-fed body of water, and swimming is allowed during park hours in a roped-off area. Those who swim at Lions Beach are warned with signs to swim at their own risk. A swimming area is designated.
Marcos A. Esquivel, 14, of 816 5th St., Beloit, died Saturday afternoon after he swam out of the roped-off swimming area.
"I feel a lot of empathy for that family," Levitt said Monday.
"At this point, we haven't decided to close Lions Beach," Levitt said. "We're going to look and see, ‘Was there anything that could have been done differently?'
"From everything I've heard, the person was swimming outside the area that we have designated for swimming," Levitt said. "But we are evaluating what all occurred."
Jay Winzenz, assistant city manager, said the city is not liable in the death. He said state statutes give public entities immunity from death or injuries that result from participating in recreational activities.
Fiscal concerns played a role in the decision to remove lifeguards at the beach, he said.
Since 2000, the city has been under tight budgets caused by levy limits and reductions in state shared revenues, Winzenz said.
"We are constantly looking at services that could be reduced or eliminated," Winzenz said. "As I recall, Lions Beach had a very high per-user subsidy. We had gone through several years of colder- and rainier-than-average summers and also had issues with the geese and other birds causing water-quality problems down at the beach.
"The usage had dropped off dramatically, and the decision was made to pull the lifeguards."
The beach was kept open, in part, to serve lower-income families with the free admission.
Mark Dwyer, a staff member at the nearby Rotary Gardens, said staff members often witness unsafe behavior by swimmers.
He said Lions Beach has been an accident waiting to happen.
When Dwyer started at Rotary Gardens, the beach area was fenced, was watched by lifeguards and was well run.
"Safety wasn't as much of a concern," Dwyer said.
But that changed when the lifeguards were removed, he said.
"There probably hasn't been a nice, hot sunny day where there hasn't been people beyond the ropes," he said.
Dwyer said he has seen young children on rafts in deep water with adults swimming alongside and adults swimming with young children on their shoulders.
People sometimes even swim as far as the water fountain. He said that makes him worry not only about the safety of the swimmers but also the safety of the expensive fountain.
The sandbar near where the boy drowned Saturday is a popular destination for swimmers, Dwyer said.
Many kids swim to the sandbar, often from the beach or the boat launch behind the armory, he said. When they get to the sandbar, he said, they often are so fatigued that they swim to the closest land, which is the Alpine Garden, and walk back to the beach.
"The bottom line is, the ropes mean nothing if there's not enforcement," Dwyer said.
"We've been extremely concerned about this for many years," he said.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family. This is a terrible tragedy."