Primer on City Housing Assistance, Pay, and Benefits
By John Pietig
This letter to the editor is in response to a recent guest column (“Perk City,” June 23).
In response to the rising cost of housing, the city of Laguna Beach initiated a housing assistance program in 2000 to encourage some essential employees to live in town to facilitate timely responses to emergencies. The employees in the program have key roles in responding to and managing operations and personnel during fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes, and other emergency events. There are presently five people in the program: fire division chief, fire chief, city manager, former wastewater supervisor, and assistant city manager. Two of the participants are in the process of selling their homes.
The housing assistance program involves the city and an employee jointly investing in a home in town and sharing proportionally in the payment of taxes, insurance, and fees. The city and the employee maintain equity positions in the home and participate in any changes in value. To the extent that an employee is provided a loan from the city, the interest rate is variable and set to exceed the return the city receives on its investments.
Since the inception of the program, three homes have been sold or are in the process of being sold. All three of the homes appreciated in value; and when the cost of taxes, insurance, and fees are deducted, the net cost to the community for an essential employee to live in town averages about $2,500 per year.
I was the second participant in the program in 2001 when I was hired as the assistant city manager. Because of this program, I was able to promptly respond to the 2005 landslide, numerous flooding events, several major sewage spills, and at least four fires since 2007.
The latest participant in the program is the assistant city manager/director of public works, who is responsible for overseeing city buildings and their emergency backup generators, engineering, construction, storm drains, streets, parks, transit, parking, and waste management services. This position will also have responsibility for management of emergencies when the city manager is out of town.
On another matter, the guest column also incorrectly implies that employees are working less due to a new schedule at City Hall. Employees still work 80 hours every two weeks through a modified schedule that is similar to schedules available to employees in 30 of the 34 cities in Orange County. The new schedule provides expanded City Hall hours on Mondays through Thursdays (7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) and has City Hall open for eight hours every other Friday and closed on the alternate Friday.
Questions were also raised in the guest column about employee pay and benefits. Laguna Beach provides pay and benefits that are competitive with other cities in the marketplace in order to recruit and retain qualified employees. Additionally, city employees appreciate the value of their retirement program; and over the last three years have started contributing between 8% and 12% of their salary to mitigate the cost of their retirement benefit. Reduced retirement programs have also been instituted by the state for new public employees, which will further reduce retirement costs in the future.
I appreciate the opportunity to provide additional information.
The author has worked 27 years in government management, the most recent five as city manager in Laguna Beach. He was hired 10 years earlier as assistant city manager after working in Alhambra and Riverside.