NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Aurora Toussaint brings her disabled son to the sun-kissed beaches of this Southern California city almost every day in the summer, knowing that the lifeguards who watch from their towers will be there in seconds should anything go wrong.

Yet Toussaint, who quit work and dipped into her retirement early to care for her seizure-prone son, was shocked to learn that most of the fulltime lifeguards in this city earn well over $100,000 in total compensation a year — more than Toussaint made in her previous life as a nurse and more than she believes is right in the present economy .

“When I first heard that I was amazed at how much they make. To think that these are lifeguards! That’s more than some doctors make,” said Toussaint, 55.

That’s the kind of reaction Newport Beach’s 13-member fulltime lifeguard crew has drawn this month, since the local newspaper editorialized about lifeguard salaries, benefits and overtime pay that in at least two instances top $200,000 (with $400 for sun protection) as the city struggles to rein in pension costs.

The ensuing debate over the merits of having lifeguards as well-paid as some CEOs has divided this wealthy coastal city, spawned a pro-lifeguard Facebook page and created headlines as far away as England (“Time for a Career Change? California’s Baywatch lifeguards paid up to $210,000 per year!”).

The swell of anger from beachgoers and budget-watchers alike has blindsided the lifeguards, who have for years enjoyed the prestige of their jobs in an ocean-centric town that banks on summer tourism.

Those whose salaries are in question point out that they hold management roles, have decades of service and are considered public safety employees under the fire department, the same as fire captains and battalion chiefs. The fulltime guards train about 200 seasonal lifeguards who make between $16 and $22 an hour, and run a junior lifeguard program

Said Brent Jacobsen, president of the Lifeguard Management Association, the lifeguards’ union: “We’re professional level. Lifeguarding here is different than any other place in the entire world.”

Base salaries for Newport Beach lifeguards range from $58,000 for the lowest-paid officer to $108,492 for the top-paid battalion chief. Adding in overtime, special compensation, pension, medical benefits, life insurance and other pay, two battalion chiefs cleared more than $200,000 in 2010. Newport Beach’s lifeguards can also retire at 50 with 90 percent of their salary with 30 years of service, according to state data.

The lifeguards’ union is trying to avoid reductions by striking a deal that could see them increase their pension contribution from 3.5 percent to 9 percent annually.