A survey to determine voter sentiment on city projects and proposals, including if residents are willing to foot the bill on a $180 million utility under-grounding project, is circulating through the email in-boxes of 6,000 Laguna Beach registered voters.
As of Monday, the 22-question survey already received 300 responses, said Christa Johnson, assistant city manager; 400 are all that’s needed to take the voters’ pulse, she said.
Adam Sonenshein, the representative at Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates (FM3) handling the Laguna survey, did not return phone calls or emails regarding the survey.
In fact, no one official is talking much about it yet.
“We can’t release it,” said Johnson. “We’re not going to be doing it this week. They’re really trying to get a statistically accurate survey.”
Johnson answered some of the questions the Indy presented to her via email.
“The purpose of the community survey is to acquire statistically valid and reliable data in order to inform the City Council so they can make strategic decisions based upon the consensus of a broad representative sampling of the community,” she wrote.
Questions regarding possible ballot measures, tax measures, the structure of the survey and why it was necessary were not answered.
“FM3 applies its expertise through voter surveys and other research techniques to first ascertain the feasibility of passing a funding increment ballot measure and then, if that measure is to be placed on the ballot, to help shape the communications for winning the necessary approval from voters,” states the FM3 website under government services.
Christopher Kling, a survey recipient and Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. board member, said he thought the survey was “deceptive.”
The survey garnered agreement that certain things, such as fire and safety measures and housing for the homeless were necessary, and then asked if the voter would be willing to pay for it, Kling said.
“Laguna Beach has the money, our money, but I think the city would rather raise the sales tax and have us pay for it instead of them,” said Kling. “I think the city needs to work within their means. The survey did ask us if we wanted to change our minds. And I did. We have a lot of money compared to other cities.”
One question concerned adding a city retail sales tax of .5 to 1 percent on top of the 8 percent current retail sales tax, Kling confirmed. But an increase in sales tax isn’t what retailers need, said Kavita Reddy, chair of the retail task force for the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and owner of Buy Hand gift shop in Laguna.
“It would be a little tough for us right now in Laguna as it is nationwide,” said Reddy. “Brick-and-mortar retailers are really suffering. We’re struggling to keep our sales even remotely the same levels as previous years.”
Spendable income is going to online shopping and restaurants, Reddy commented. A one percent increase would generate $5 million in one year, said Johnson. The survey also asked about an increase in the hotel occupancy tax from 10 to 14 percent, which would generate approximately $4 million dollars annually, she said.
If a service is brought into a city such as medical marijuana dispensaries just for the sales tax revenue, it usually ends up badly, Kling commented. He cited Colorado’s problems with dispensaries as a current example.
“I’m not sure why this is such a state secret,” said Matt Lawson, chair of the city’s Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee who commended the council and the city for providing the survey.
Lawson said he and his committee support the survey’s high-ticket item of undergrounding utilities.
“There aren’t too many people in Laguna Beach who are, shall we say, less enthusiastic about paying taxes than I am, but this is such a compelling public safety issue that I indicated I would strongly support that,” he said.
The survey was sent to 6,000 out of 23,000 residents because their email addresses are listed with their voter registration, Johnson said. A minimum response of 400 is considered an accurate sampling. If there are gaps in the city’s demographics in the responses, FM3 will call residents and ask the questions over the phone, she added. “They want it to be reflective of the community,” Johnson said. “They’re off to a really good start.”
Johnson said she hopes to present the initial findings to the City Council next Tuesday, June 14. Council members Toni Iseman and Bob Whalen formed a subcommittee that recommended topics for the survey at the council’s May 10 meeting, which were unanimously accepted by the council.
Iseman, too, was reticent about responding. “While the survey is being conducted, it is better not to comment,” she wrote in a text this week. “I don’t want to invalidate the Q & A.”
Whalen is on vacation, his office said, and could not be reached. “Let’s talk when Bob returns,” Iseman wrote.
Once the recipient has received the survey, it cannot be forwarded or opened again. Andrea Adelson, editor of the Laguna Beach Independent, received the survey and said she thought one purpose of the survey was to assess voter sentiment for future tax measures to fund improvements, including $180 million to pay for undergrounding utilities.
The survey also asked if the respondent thought City Hall and the City Council were performing well in managing the city, Adelson said.
As the subcommittee, Whalen and Iseman listed categories for the survey. Preliminary topics were presented at the May 10 council meeting. The varied suggestions included medical marijuana dispensaries, short-term lodging, a new cultural arts and events center, increasing sales and hotel occupancy taxes, traffic and parking, affordable housing, permanent supportive housing for homeless people, undergrounding utilities, mansionization, another city swimming pool, rebuilding the south Laguna fire station and adding pedestrian and bicycle rights of way on Laguna Canyon Road.
Short-term lodging and the land-use plan were removed from the council’s list, according to a vote at the May 10 meeting.