After hearing nearly an hour of requests to fund pet projects from various civic groups, the City Council favored some new and unusual requests at Tuesday’s budget workshop and signaled their intent to add staff to the fire and marine safety departments as well.
The requests will be studied by city staff and, along with additional city-recommended expenditures, are expected to be finalized Tuesday, June 28, in the council chambers.
City Manager John Pietig supplied a wish list of his own for expenditures for various city departments not included in the city’s proposed $57 million budget. The requests ranged from adding another lifeguard tower at Treasure Island Beach to sponsoring the Laguna Plein Air Painting Association’s annual invitational.
“This year, more than any I can remember, there seem to be more requests for money than any time in the past,” said Pietig. “Sometimes that tends to happen when things are better because, when things are bad, people sometimes know not to even ask.”
If the wish list from city administrators is accepted, one-time expenses will cost $237,500 and ongoing expenses $173,300, leaving a combined budget surplus of nearly $1 million for 2016-17.
Topping Pietig’s wish list is adding another lifeguard on the sand below the Montage resort due to the surging popularity of Treasure Island Beach. A channel between rock ledges forms a rip current and becomes especially dangerous for children when strong waves wash onshore. In July 2014, lifeguards rescued 450 people at Treasure Island, compared to 20 rescues at the beach in July 2004, says a report by Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow. The 30-acre, 250-room resort opened in February 2003.
Hiring a full-time fire prevention specialist at $118,500 a year and reducing fire hazards in Hobo Canyon above the Laguna Terrace mobile home park at a cost of $500,000 also made the list. The fire department has not significantly added to its staff for 15 years, according to a report by Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse. Unlike every other fire agency in Orange County, the city’s fire department does not charge fees to inspect major home remodels or the town’s 1,500 businesses. With a 40 percent increase in the number of emergency calls compared to 10 years ago and high fire hazard, the costs for adding personnel could be covered by these fees, LaTendresse said.
The plein air association requested a matching grant of $50,000 since the annual contest is no longer sponsored by the Laguna Art Museum. Earlier this year, the council agreed to give the art museum and Laguna Playhouse $1 million each in matching grants at $250,000 a year.
Some recommended changes to the budget address controversial topics that surfaced recently, such as setting aside $97,500 for adding initiatives to the November ballot to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and compete with a petition-initiative that would establish two local dispensaries.
Another proposed change asks for more staffing to better enforce the existing short-term rental ordinance. Pietig conceded that a decision to fund the position depends on results from the upcoming community survey, which will ask residents about the desirability of short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods, among other issues.
Community Assistance Grants will also be discussed at the next budget meeting. More than twice the $240,000 available was requested.
“As far as people applying for the Community Assistance funds, there are a lot of things on here that aren’t nearly as worthy as the things that have been presented tonight,” said council member Toni Iseman.
Earlier, council members agreed to consider a request for a monarch butterfly waystation at $5,000. to Transition Laguna president Chris Prelitz said the butterfly population has dropped 75 percent due to pesticide exposure, habitat destruction and climate changes. Prelitz said he would partner with Laguna Greenbelt to complete the project.
The council also gave a preliminary nod to a three-month trial to close lower Park Avenue to encourage pedestrian traffic, also requested by Prelitz.
Helping to upgrade the entry to the Dilley Nature Preserve, 376 acres of wilderness off Laguna Canyon Road north of the 73 toll road, at $125,000, presented by Scott Ferguson and Bob Borthwick, was also given preliminary consent by the council.
Kavita Reddy, retail task force chair for the Chamber of Commerce and owner of Buy Hand jewelry and gift shop, requested more money for 19 signs that would provide directions to various retail districts. The council already appropriated $40,000 to initiate the program.
Reddy said that amount will only cover the consultant’s study on proposed locations and design and requested another $38,000 to install the signs next summer. “We can’t afford to go another tourist season without these signs in place,” said Reddy.
Requests to provide funding for South Laguna sidewalks and a highway median, another in-town round-about, the tidepool docent program and a monitoring camera to study wildlife movement will also be considered.
The $15,000 request to monitor wildlife traveling near the Great Park in Irvine was presented by Laguna Greenbelt president Elizabeth Brown. “In our 48 years, I don’t think we’ve ever asked the city for funds,” Brown said. Wild animals aren’t using the Interstate 5 underpass tunnel and the camera will help determine the cause, she said.
Another item the council agreed to study was affordable housing. “The challenge we’ve always had is that we do not have a dedicated revenue source to help build affordable housing,” said council member Rob Zur Schmiede. An upcoming community survey will solicit residents’ preferences on less expensive housing in Laguna, council member Bob Whalen said.
The article “Budget Funds Butterflies to Lifeguards” in the May 27 edition incorrectly reported that a survey will solicit opinions about short-term rentals. The Indy regrets the error.