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Budget Windfalls Benefit New Initiatives

A full-time bicycle patrol officer will soon pedal through downtown Laguna Beach streets thanks to fuller than expected city coffers and the approval of the City Council on Tuesday for new or increased funding in many areas.

Higher than expected property, sales and bed taxes, among other factors, resulted in a one-time general fund windfall of $3.8 million, while escalating property tax revenue will add $534,000 annually, Gavin Curran, the city’s director of finance, reported.

The good news was tempered by sobering news that the employee pension fund Calpers adopted a plan expected to increase the city’s contribution rate by 9 to 12 percent of payroll over the next five years, which could set the city back almost $7 million when coupled with a new requirement to report projected unfunded pension liability on the city’s balance sheets.

Laguna’s unfunded liability, as currently projected by Calpers, comes to $53 million. City staff will return to the Council with a long-term strategic plan to address this issue.

A big portion of the windfall will go into savings, adding $650,000 to the general fund reserve, beefing it up to 20 percent, a recommendation of City Manager John Pietig. Council member Kelly Boyd applauded the move. “To me it shows that we’re a city that’s conservative with our money, that we’re not big spenders and we know we’ll have the money there when we need it,” he said.

Additionally, a $465,000 windfall in the capital improvement fund will be used to remediate a dump site unearthed during the 2010 flood near Sun Valley Drive and to analyze options for improving Laguna Canyon Creek drainage.

But the swelled coffers fell short of compensating for an escalation in cost estimates for the renovation of the high school tennis courts. The city had already allocated $435,000 to the joint project with the school district, where the city foots 70 percent of the bill to the district’s 30 percent.

Based on the new projected costs, the city would be required to contribute another $600,000 to $900,000, which is not included in the current budget. “Right now the city doesn’t have anywhere near this kind of money for the project,” said Pietig.

For his part Boyd said he had supported the city’s $435,000 contribution but would “never” support an amount double or triple that figure.

The parking fund brought in $932,000 above estimates, allowing the Council to allocate $700,000 toward funding a landscaped pathway, the only portion of the village entrance project endorsed in November.

Extra parking funds will also pay $65,000 towards staffing to implement parking management strategies, which were approved separately, as well as $150,000 towards new directional signs and equipment.

The Council unanimously approved all of Pietig’s suggested budget changes, which included allocating $175,000 towards administration of an imminent view ordinance, a $60,000 supplement to $40,000 already budgeted for an urban planner, $125,000 to expand the city’s fuel modification zones, $30,000 to carry out fire safety measures, $95,000 for license plate readers at Laguna Canyon Road and El Toro, and $130,000 to add a sworn police officer to the police force.

One-time cash influxes should fund one-time expenditures while ongoing increases can pay for ongoing projects, Pietig said.

Only two people made appeals during the mid-year budget hearing.

The Council agreed to a plea from Terri Johnson, president of Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden, who asked city officials for an additional $1,500, above $11,000 already allotted for repairs at the historic property.

A more expensive request was rejected. Detective Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees Association, urged the council to fund a second sworn police officer for the department, in addition to the one suggested by Pietig, as well as a police canine officer for drug detection.

Hiring one officer brings the sworn force to 47, still down from a peak of 50 in 2003, he said. He pushed for a 48th, citing the strain on the force to answer increased calls for service at the bus depot and homeless shelter.

Bammer contends the town’s drug problem is “far more serious than what the police blotter portrays” and a canine officer would be invaluable. As an example, he cited a 2012 drunk driving arrest where the passenger was a known drug dealer. Without their own dog, they had to wait 24 hours for the county sheriff to bring one of theirs to the tow yard, where the dog helped police locate nine ounces of heroin in the car.

More recently, two girls were caught smoking heroin at the high school, sending “shock waves throughout the community,” he said.

Boyd and Council member Steve Dicterow offered strong support for the extra police officer included in the revised budget and hoped to accommodate Bammer’s request for another officer with a canine in next year’s budget.

“I’d also like to see the canine, frankly,” agreed Mayor Elizabeth Pearson.

Council member Toni Iseman had hoped the city might come up with $10,800 for the local nonprofit radio station KX 93.5. According to the station’s founder Tyler Russell, the amount would cover the costs of generators and other equipment that would allow the station to provide non-stop emergency broadcasting in the event of a disaster.

 

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