By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
Opponents and supporters of the ballot measure proposing to raise Laguna Beach’s sales tax by 1 percent to pay for moving utility lines underground in Laguna Canyon and other emergency access routes, known as Measure P, fiercely argued their sides of the issue during an Oct. 4 panel in the Council Chambers.
The sales tax increase would bring Laguna Beach’s sales tax to 8.75 percent, compared to 7.75 percent sales taxes in Newport Beach and Dana Point.
Laguna Beach Beautification Council and Transition Laguna Beach, a nonprofit that advocates for environmentally-sustainable living, hosted the panel that consisted of four speakers. Councilman Bob Whalen and attorney Thomas Gibbs advocated in support of Measure P. Attorney Jennifer Welsh-Zeiter and resident Michael Morris represented the opposition that’s grown under the Stop Taxing Our Property campaign.
One of the supporters’ main concerns is that trees can fall on power lines during Santa Ana winds, sparking fires that quickly spread. This emergency worsens if power lines fall on one of the three access routes needed to get firefighters into the city and for residents to evacuate.
“We can’t sit idly by thinking nothing is ever going to happen to us,” Whalen said.
Whalen added that six fires have been started by downed electrical lines in Laguna Beach over the last 10 years.
Laguna Beach is already spending $2.5 million from existing city revenues to pay for undergrounding utilities, but this is expected to only cover about a third of the cost needed to complete the construction. Whalen said the city’s attempts to coax Southern California Edison into paying for up to half of the project’s costs were fruitless. If approved, Measure P is estimated to annually collect an additional $8.1 million to help with undergrounding utilities.
Welsh-Zeiter was skeptical about approving the collection of more taxes, considering Laguna Beach voters approved Measure LL to raise the transient occupant tax in 2016. She and Morris are also concerned that the city will need to issue sales-tax-backed bonds to pay for the expensive infrastructure upgrades. They would prefer that the city not take on additional debt that could hurt its credit rating.
“If any disaster [costs] exceeded the reserve fund we would be in bad shape,” Morris said.
The language of the ballot measure is also problematic for Welsh-Zeiter because it leaves room for funds to be used on fire safety measures beyond the primary goal of undergrounding. Among these fire safety measures are the maintenance of open space vegetation to protect home; implementation of new technologies for fire detection and firefighting, drones for surveying and firefighting efforts, and improving emergency vehicle access to neighborhoods that are challenging to reach.
Some trees would need to be removed to accommodate the underground utilities, but city staff won’t know an exact number until engineers complete their plans. The ballot measure explicitly states that revenue collected from the sales tax increase cannot be used to add a lane to Laguna Canyon Road.
Morris said he would like to see the city analyze how it can reduce fire risk from other sources, such as construction equipment and arson before it dives into undergrounding utility lines.
“It appears to be the most expensive way possible to reduce fire risk,” Morris said. “I think we need to give consideration to these other measures that can be paid for as we go.”
Gibbs argued that the endorsement of Measure P by Laguna Beach Fire Chief Michael Garcia and Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella should carry weight with residents, because they’re the community’s public safety experts.