Budget talks remain ‘cautiously optimistic,’ Laguna Beach officials say

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A Long Range Acoustic Device on top of a building at Laguna Beach High School. The City Council is prioritizing expanding the Outdoor Warning System into Bluebird Canyon and Crestview Drive. Courtesy of city of Laguna Beach

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

Fire safety and public infrastructure improvements led the Laguna Beach City Council’s budget talks Tuesday night.

Though revenues from the previous year have exceeded expectations, the proposed $125 million budget for the 2022-2023 Fiscal Year remains “cautiously optimistic,” wrote City Manager Shohreh Dupuis. Already the City has made headway on its capital improvement plan, but city officials remain aware that record inflation and heightened construction costs could upstage the progress.

Estimated revenues for the General Fund–which covers most City operations–are $81.6 million, with a forecast of $81.1 in expenditures. Nearly half of this fund is allocated to the police, fire, and marine safety departments.

Laguna Beach still has close to $3.34 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The City’s total allotment was $5.46 million, and around $2.12 million has already been spent balancing the 2021-2022 Fiscal Year budget.

The City will fill eight new positions this next year, seven of which are Community Development, which struggled to keep up with proposed hotel developments and a record level of home remodels during the pandemic. The positions are forecasted to increase salary costs by $2 million.

Also appropriated in the General Fund is $1.8 million for the Fire Department’s new in-house ambulance team, which is expected to launch July 1.

Over the course of 10 years, the City aims to commit $108 million to capital improvements, Director of Public Works Mark McAvoy said. The total proposed capital improvement budget for the 2022-2023 Fiscal Year is $13.5 million.

A few key projects expected to break ground this coming year are the Moss Street beach improvements, LED street light conversion, and Peppertree parking lot rehabilitation.

Included in the capital improvement plan is the widening of Bluebird Canyon Road for ease of evacuation in the case of a wildfire, an initiative that has received widespread support had the recent Coastal and Emerald Fires reinvigorated fire safety talks.

Expanding the outdoor warning system further into Bluebird Canyon was also a topic of discussion. The project for two new loudspeaker sites would cost around $285,000 and was included as a “wish list” item. The acoustics of Bluebird Canyon have made it impossible for residents to understand emergency messages from the Morningside Drive, Diamond Street, and Crestview Drive neighborhoods.

If city panels grant the necessary approvals, the first set of equipment could be installed within six months, Fire Chief Mike Garcia said.

Councilmember Peter Blake said he strongly supported spending more on a system that would help save lives during an evacuation. City officials have sought redundant warning systems in case cell towers go offline in an emergency.

“That just is such an important thing, because if you don’t have a telephone and you’re not on Nixle and there’s a fire – how are you gonna know?” Blake said.

Another $2.5 million has been set aside for the Fire Station 4 project, which will cap out at around a total of $5 million over three years.

The City purchased the vacant Ti Amo restaurant for $2.7 million but halted plans to build a replacement Fire Station 4 on the lot after public pushback. Dupuis has assured residents that the City has been exploring possible other acquisitions better suited to the needs of the fire station.

The South Laguna Community Garden also reemerged on the Council’s radar, leading to talks about whether there was money to appropriate towards purchasing the property.

“We have a lot to pay back to South Laguna,” Councilmember George Weiss said. “I don’t know where we can get that money but we should do it.”

City has reserved funds for acquisition of the garden before. The last agreement was made during the ratification of the 2021-2022 budget, and stipulated that the $500,000 could be dispersed to other programs if a deal was not penned with the property owner by Jan. 15.

With the land’s sale price increasing, the City Council unanimously voted to once again pledge the $500,000, but only if community members can raise the rest of the asking price.

The 2022-2023 Fiscal Year budget is expected to be presented to the City Council for final approval June 21.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen said he was pleased with how new revenues are being spent on initiatives that will directly improve residents’ safety and quality of life.

“It’s a good budget, and it’s beneficial,” Whalen said. “I’m very proud of it.”

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  1. “The City purchased the vacant Ti Amo restaurant for $2.7 million but halted plans to build a replacement Fire Station 4 on the lot after public pushback. Dupuis has assured residents that the City has been exploring possible other acquisitions better suited to the needs of the fire station.”

    Fact is, City Manager Dupuis refused to listen to numerous residents when the initial purchase was discussed. She completely ignored residents and instead rushed this purchase through without due diligence or a formal appraisal. No one supported it as a fire station from the get go except she and Presenter Chief Garcia. Makes you wonder what and who was behind this taxpayer gouging. All I can see that Dupuis accomplished was to turn a viable revenue generating restaurant in to an empty one that’s deteriorating.

    Meanwhile while she and council members are finding things to spend our fat budget on, SL continues to go without sidewalks, public bathrooms, proper trash receptacles, parking for residents, businesses and visitors, limited police presence/responses and an ancient fire station with engines housed outside its building while other areas of the city get face lifts, street widening’s and other attention. Why?

    We need council members who will prioritize our southern city gateway community and actually do something to improve our village, neighborhoods and our safety. No more lip service and senseless acquisitions.

    Let’s Vote in candidates in 2022 that commit to making SL a priority instead of an afterthought. Thanks.

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