Laguna Beach OKs $125M budget boosting staff pay, fire safety

A view of Aliso Canyon after the Canyon Fire looking toward the Coronado Pointe neighborhood of Laguna Niguel on May 18. An expansion of the Outdoor Warning System in Bluebird Canyon is among projects added to the 2022-23 Fiscal Year Budget. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach unanimously approved a final round of budget revisions Tuesday, finalizing the $125 million plan for the 2022-2023 Fiscal Year.

The City Council has been undergoing budget talks for months. After the May 24 workshop meeting identified several areas of interest–including capital improvements, fire safety, and overall quality of life–city staffers revised the budget to reflect councilmembers’ top priorities.

General Fund revenues, which would pay most of the City’s expenses, are expected to total $81 million. Half of that money will be put towards the police, fire, and marine safety departments.

Fire safety has been at the forefront of talks for months, and the revised budget will see early fire warning systems going up around some of the City’s most wildfire-prone areas. About $145,000 has been appropriated to expand the outdoor sirens in Bluebird Canyon, with another $150,000 allocated for similar warning systems in other high-risk neighborhoods.

With budget talks closely preceding the Fourth of July, Councilmember Toni Iseman asked what the fire department was doing to prepare for illegal firework usage, a top concern amid persistent drought conditions.

“We get our fire engines, we get our crews, and we go to the parks,” Fire Chief Mike Garcia said. “We go to where the groups are, and before anything starts we actually go out and make contact and we educate. We communicate. We tell them we’re out here. We tell them what the importance is… that’s where we spend a lot of focus with our officers, and with our firefighters on patrol, and with our lifeguards on the beaches. We try to be proactive.”

Laguna Beach police deploy drones during the summer months to help officers surveil illegal fireworks users. Catching people in the act of firing off remains a stubborn challenge.

Mayor Sue Kempf and Councilmember Peter Blake lauded the radio station, KX 93.5 LB Radio, for its role in getting important emergency information out to residents. The nonprofit station will continue to receive public funding, specifically $15,000 this year through the Community Assistance Grant program funded by the City’s lease with the Festival of the Arts.

A number of other grants will be distributed: $25,000 to the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, $20,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach, and $15,000 to the La Playa Center, among others.

Iseman suggested reallocating sums from some of the larger organizations who “know how to throw a party” and “bring in the money” to other smaller organizations, who may not have the capabilities or resources to fundraise themselves.

However, Kempf and Blake disagreed with defunding the radio station, saying it would take resources away from what they see as a vital communication in case of emergency.

“The appetite’s way bigger than the stomach,” Kempf said.

The station produces a weekly podcast where Kempf and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen broadcast updates on the City’s latest programs and actions during the pandemic.

At Whalen’s suggestion, councilmembers unanimously voted to shift about $10,000 from the General Fund’s $151,000 surplus into the grant program, upping awards to the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center, Seaside Legal Services, and Protecting Unwanted Pets Laguna Beach.

Other smaller revisions to the budget include one-time funds and salary increases.

A one-time purchase of $210,000 will cover three new police patrol vehicles. The City also approved $75,000 for a new vehicle for the Fire Chief. Garcia is set to retire July 5. A Sacramento deputy fire chief was tapped as the next Laguna Beach fire chief, city officials said Wednesday.

A slight revision to capital improvement will allocate $100,000 for designing City Hall’s lobby renovation. This year will see a slight hike in city attorney fees for the first time since 2018, from $12,000 per month to $15,000 per month.

Councilmembers signed off on 4% salary increases for city treasurer Laura Parisi and city clerk Ann Marie McKay. This puts them at $108,372 and $127,920 annual salaries respectively. Both were also awarded “exceptional performance pay” equaling 5% of their annual salary. Similar one-time bonuses were also handed to other city employees.

The Council also approved funding for an additional full-time parking services officer, which city staffers estimate could cost upwards of $95,000 from the parking fund. This position would provide an additional employee to manage illegal parking and investigate traffic collisions, freeing up motorcycle officers to conduct more proactive patrols against speeding and loud exhaust, Civilian Services Administrator Jim Beres said.

To improve public transportation access to canyon residents, Laguna Beach will strike a deal with Orange County Transportation Authority and allocate $13,000 from the transit fund for 200 bus passes. Public trolleys are not serving Laguna Canyon neighborhoods this summer.

“This is a bandaid for a couple of months,” City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said. “And then looking forward we can look into if we want to expand trolley services into that area.”

OCTA is currently running a promotion throughout the summer in which anyone under the age of 18 rides for free, Dupuis added.

Due to the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, the adopted budget will go into effect for the 2022-2023 Fiscal Year.

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