Clinic to Close for Sewer Repairs

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Sewer problems at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic will require a temporary weeks-long closure, disrupting services for hundreds of patients, its executive director said in a financial appeal to the City Council Tuesday.

“We can’t do this alone without your help,” said Dr. Jorge Rubal, the clinic’s chief executive and medical director. He asked elected officials for help with an estimated $225,000 repair tab on a 50-year-old downtown building where artists, students and low-income people seek medical care.

Council members urged considering the use of temporary quarters, though Rubal said in an interview Wednesday that he has yet to explore that possibility because the scope of the repair work is still being determined.

“I think it’s highly unlikely” to set up temporary quarters at Mission Hospital or elsewhere, due to safety standards and electronic medial records that the clinic houses through a collective, he said. “We do blood draws and procedures. We have to worry about bio-hazards. I can’t set up shop in the cafeteria of the church,” Rubal said.

Council members, scheduled to deliberate over an unexpected $7 million in city budget surpluses, unanimously agreed to a $125,000 emergency grant to the clinic and an interest free loan for the remaining $100,000 balance. The matter will return to the council for final approval Tuesday, Feb. 28.

While Rubal expressed confidence clinic supporters would step up to fulfill the unanticipated financial demand, council member Bob Whalen said his colleagues understood the urgency to act. “We don’t want them waiting for 120 days” to raise the funds, said Whalen, who asked Rubal how quickly repairs could get underway.

Powerful sewer fumes that began last spring forced the closure of the clinic numerous times, especially in summer, Rubal explained. Cracks and corrosion to the original pipes under the structure built in 1963 were determined to be the cause, he said.

The smells coincided with the conclusion last March of a major municipal sewer replacement upgrade on Third Street. “When we hooked them up to the new system, their problems became more prominent,” explained David Shissler, the city’s water quality director. A video inspection of the clinic’s lateral sewer line spotted corrosion in the original pipes. An industrial hygienist, expert in sewage clean-up, also detected a small inactive spill in the building’s crawl space, Shissler said. It will require sanitizing before plumbers can replace pipes, he said.

The clinic could close as early as this month, Rubal said.

Civic-minded citizens and physicians established the Laguna Beach Free Clinic in 1970 in part to serve unmet health needs of the town’s flourishing counterculture. Now, nearly 50 years later, the renamed and relocated clinic carries on that mission, responding to the evolving health needs of low-income people and new mandates under the Affordable Care Act. With an annual budget of $2.3 million, keeping the clinic’s doors open requires more than $1 million in annual fundraising, 2015 tax records show.

 

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Clinic Medical Director, pictured with retired doctor Tom Bent, Jorge Rubal’s oversight now includes emergency plumbing triage, a task the City Council will make easier with funding. Photo by Carolyn Bent.
Clinic Medical Director, pictured with retired doctor Tom Bent left, Jorge Rubal’s oversight now includes emergency plumbing triage, a task the City Council will make easier with funding. Photo by Carolyn Bent.

The clinic’s 22-person staff treats 15,000 patient visits a year. While each visit costs about $170, the clinic’s reimbursement rate is about $57. About two thirds of its 3,700 patients live below the federal poverty level and are comprised of artists, students, childcare providers, restaurant and shop workers.

“They provide an essential service,” Council member Steve Dicterow said. “We should do whatever we can for them,” agreed council member Kelly Boyd.

In other routine business, elected officials approved about 30 new appropriations, most of them one-time expenses, to take advantage of $7 million in higher than projected revenue in the 2015-16 budget. Contributing factors include higher revenue on property, sales and hotel taxes as well as from parking meters and development fees.

Even so, city officials learned its unfunded pension liability increased by $7 million to $49 million, due in part to lower than expected investment returns by the state Public Employee Retirement System, the staff report says.

The largest approved appropriation, $1.5 million, was set aside to cover a court judgment of $1.4 million to pay for legal fees in a lawsuit that determined a city sound ordinance violated free speech protections, a staff report says.

A federal court ruled the city’s regulations as overly broad and awarded damages of $3 to three plaintiffs as well as attorneys’ fees of $1.4 million, though their attorneys asked for $3.2 million. The 2008 suit was filed on behalf of three San Diego men refused a permit to use bullhorns to broadcast religious and anti-abortion messages outside the high school, court records show. The city’s legal costs defending the case amounted to $300,000, said City Attorney Phil Kohn.

While the plaintiffs appeal the terms of the award, the city manager urged setting aside $1.4 million towards a settlement, the staff report says.

Though the remaining legal dispute “is purely about attorneys’ fees,” Kohn said, initially the suit contested the validity of a prohibition on use of bullhorns. “That’s where the battle was,” Kohn said. “There was nothing to prevent them from chanting, talking to passerby or handing out literature.”

Within eight months of the lawsuit being filed, though, the city acted to amend its ordinance and in 2010 removed the prohibitions, federal District Judge Cormac J. Carney noted in a ruling issued Nov. 11, 2013.

The council set aside another $500,000 for litigation fees on two other lawsuits. One involves the operation of a city run homeless shelter. The other contests an ordinance restricting short-term rentals to commercial areas of town.

In other budget matters, the council authorized a three-year labor contract for five members of the police and fire department command staff, which will cost about $180,000 annually. The pay and benefit hikes will make their salaries more competitive with other cities, the staff report says.

The terms include 15 percent pay increases over three years and a jump in contributions by the command staff to their own retirement benefits to 12 percent of salary from the current 9 percent, the staff report says.

 

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