Few Citizens Join Budget Review

Officer Darrel Short, assigned to foot patrol downtown, hears out merchant Luke Solis.
Officer Darrel Short, assigned to foot patrol downtown, hears out merchant Luke Solis.

Few surprises surfaced in the public workshop held Tuesday as Laguna Beach’s city staff presented a proposed two-year budget, outlining estimated expenditures of $68.5 million for the coming fiscal year and of $67.6 million for the following year.

City Council members largely endorsed staff recommendations for use of a $1.1 million windfall in the general fund.

While City Manager John Pietig noted Laguna emerged from the recession relatively unscathed, without resorting to layoffs or furloughs, Finance Director Gavin Curran pointed out the proposed budget maintains services and assumes moderate revenue growth, but does not account for yet-to-be resolved labor negotiations with employee unions.

The city’s projected costs are rising faster than revenue, Curran said. A $907,000 balance for the fiscal year ending June 30 drops to $622,900 and $423,700 for the two subsequent years, respectively. The decline is partly attributed to increasing costs of salaries and benefits as well as capital equipment expenditures, he said.

Perhaps the largest surprise was the two-year budget itself, a first for the city, which in the past approved budgets on an annual basis. Curran dismissed fears about relying on long-term projections. Budget reviews scheduled for January and May next year give ample opportunity to make adjustments prior to adopting the 2014-15 budget next June, he said.

The workshop allows both the City Council and the public a chance to air budget concerns prior to its expected adoption on June 18.

The one-time recommendations of staff included $300,000 to $400,00 to administer an anticipated view ordinance, $400,000 towards Laguna’s share in upgrading the county’s public safety radio system, $60,000 for a grant writer, $40,000 for a police foot patrol downtown, $25,000 for downtown traffic control,  $10,000 more for sidewalk cleaning and $3,000 for a council strategic planning session.

Of the 11 residents who spoke during the hearing, three called for utility pole undergrounding and three requested funds for complete streets, a state mandate requiring roads be accessible for foot and bike traffic.

Resident Rita Conn called the undergrounding of the city’s utility poles a safety imperative due to what she described as Southern California Edison’s overloading of poles, attributed to more than one fire in the state.

In response, Council member Bob Whalen said the prohibitive $30 million cost of removing poles from Laguna Canyon Road, for instance, requires community will. “It comes down to taxes or assessments,” he said.

“I do believe if we had a strategic planning session with the community that we would get support for funding,” said Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson.

Resident Chris Prelitz questioned the lack of budgeted funds to improve obstructed sidewalks such as on on Glenneyre Street, where poorly placed parking meters block the passage of strollers and wheelchairs. “Other cities are walking cities. We are not yet,” he said. Art Wahl and Tamara Hlava supported his view.

Pietig later responded that some budgeted expenditures fall under the complete streets umbrella, such as the proposed trial roundabout on Glenneyre, transit funding, installation of sharrows and bike racks, and funding for a study on improving Laguna Canyon Road mobility.

Other public suggestions included an additional swimming pool, a crosswalk on Third Street by the Susie Q Senior Center, improved transportation options for seniors, and upgrading the city treasurer to a fulltime position.

Council member Steve Dicterow favored funding the police foot patrol downtown and suggested bringing back a canine for drug busts.

Pearson said she hoped excess revenue could supplant the drain on the parking fund, the source of a $700,000 annual transfer to the general fund, but also placed a priority on funding the view enforcement effort.

Pearson and Boyd volunteered to review applications for $240,000 in community assistance funds budgeted for 2013-14. Requests for assistance from groups as diverse as Coastal Family Therapy Services to the Laguna Dance Festival amount to $485,409.

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