As City Plans Cutbacks, Public Safety Employees Stand Watch

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A Laguna Beach police patrol car. Photo courtesy of LBPD

Laguna Beach City Hall could see a proposal for budget cutbacks related to the ongoing recession as early as April 7, City Manager John Pietig said.

Transient occupancy tax and sales tax collectively provide the city with about 20% of its income, which is expected to be severely hit by the flatline in local tourism, Pietig said at a recent city council meeting. Laguna Beach also has a general fund reserve of about $13.2 million and a $6.4 million reserves in a separate disaster fund.

“Our revenues are dropping dramatically and we are going to need to reduce projects, programs, and maybe some services,” Pietig said. “We’re going to need cutback on employee hours and we’re going to need to start doing that next week.”

Many employees will be eligible for federal relief benefits like the private sector, he said. They’ll also be able to use their accumulated leave time.

“If we get to the point of putting people on furlough that would be the next step,” Pietig said.

Notably, Pietig tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a statement published Wednesday. Pietig said he is self-isolating at home and in good spirits. He called into the virtual city council meeting on Tuesday.

Several hoteliers have also requested the City Council defer upcoming transient occupancy tax payments because of the plummeting number of visitors due to the coronavirus, Pietig said.

“Of course it would be challenging to further defer revenue payments at a time when our revenue is taking reductions but we do have some reserves that we’ve accumulated over the years so we can maintain the continuity of essential services,” he said.

The City Council is expected to consider the idea of deferring transient occupancy tax payments at its April 7 meeting.

Although Laguna Beach City Hall will remain closed to the public through at least April 31 due to the coronavirus, most city employees are still working behind the scenes to maintain municipal operations.

“No one has been let go at this time but some part-time workers are not getting paid since they are not working,” city spokesperson Cassie Walder wrote in an email. “Long-standing part-time workers are being compensated through April 5.”

The Community Development Department is accepting plans and issuing permits but is prioritizing applications for essential home repairs and health and safety issues. Building inspectors are not entering occupied homes but are using technology such as FaceTime, Skype, and photos to complete their assignments remotely.

Notably, public safety departments, including police, fire, and marine safety are still fully-staffed.

Officer Brian Griep, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees Association, said the city provided officers and support staff with gloves, eye protection, and an N95 mask.

The department has about 1,000 N95 masks in its inventory, Capt. Jeff Calvert said.

‘We’re not going to force them to use [a mask] but they’re using their best discretion on each call,” Calvert said.

Police employees have also been asked to clean their work stations and the interior of their patrol cars at the beginning and end of their shifts. Sweetwater Hand Car Wash is still washing patrol cars regularly and employees can have their uniforms dry-cleaned at no personal cost, Calvert said.

“The biggest issue is cleaning and disinfecting our cars and workstations,” Griep wrote in a text message. “We share everything. If one person gets infected [such as an] officer, dispatcher, records clerk, [or] animal control … the likelihood of it being passed to another is very high.”

Griep added that Laguna Beach has hired a cleaning crew to deep-clean the police station on a daily basis.

“So far they have been spotty at best,” Griep wrote.

Sgt. Jim Cota didn’t agree with this review, saying that he’s observed the cleaning crew members working diligently.

The police department also purchased thermometers and any employee with a temperature above 100.4 degrees is sent home, Calvert said.

If a shift of officers were to be infected with the coronavirus, the police department has mutual aid agreements in place to receive help with Newport Beach, Irvine, Costa Mesa, and UC Irvine police departments. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department can also field deputies in Laguna in the event officers from those agencies are unavailable, Calvert said.

Cops signed up to serve the public in times of bad circumstances, including the ongoing health crisis created by COVID-19, he said.

“Going into this profession, this is essentially the thin blue line between good and evil and right now this pandemic is the evil we are facing,” Calvert said.

Community members are invited to donate Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer for police employees, Calvert said. They can be dropped off in the department’s front lobby. If the doors are locked, residents can ring the intercom, inform the answering police employee of a drop-off, and leave donations on the doorstep.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank’s Indy and John P. for the update. I am looking forward to a detailed City plan of action to cope with our current economic situation at the April CC meeting. As we know, we have current city operation hard costs and salaries to support and our substantial unfunded pension liability of $55 million or so and hanging over our heads. I know residents are concerned, especially under the circumstances.

    On a positive note and show of community support: South Swell Donuts in South Laguna has a collection jar to show our support for our public safety and health professionals! They can drop by for free donuts on locals as they are out helping to protect us. THANK YOU all for what you are doing!

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