Opinion: State of the City 2024 Address

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The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce held its annual State of the City luncheon at the Montage Laguna Beach on April 2. Chamber members and local business leaders heard from Mayor Sue Kempf, who shared the city’s current highlights, challenges, and aspirations. Below is a redacted version of Kempf’s address. The full version can be found on the City of Laguna Beach’s YouTube channel.

Our city has made substantial investments in service enhancements through strategic asset acquisitions. We acquired the former St. Catherine of Siena School in South Laguna, which became the Laguna Beach Community and Recreation Center. We completed the purchase of a property in South Laguna—the first step toward constructing a modern fire station in the area. And yes, I promise it will include a public restroom!

Mayor Sue Kempf addresses Laguna Beach business owners and residents at the 2024 State of the City luncheon at Montage Laguna Beach on April 2. Photo courtesy of the City of Laguna Beach

The acquisition and the city’s operation of the South Laguna Beaches and Parks have seen significant improvements in service delivery. Last year, in South Laguna alone, our Marine Safety Department made over 2,300 rescues, 73,000 ordinance advisements, and 193,000 safety contacts. 

The city’s mobile mental health program, launched in August 2023, has made significant strides, averaging over 400 community contacts per month. It connects individuals with mental health and substance abuse crisis intervention specialists, reducing the strain on public safety resources and allowing redirection toward other community needs.

Our police department remains dedicated to addressing loud vehicle noise and other quality-of-life issues in our neighborhoods, beaches, and parks, particularly those heavily impacted by visitors. Despite the nationwide challenges in police recruitment, our police department’s leadership and diligence, supported by the city’s human resources team, have fully staffed the park ranger program. I am confident this program will continue to address quality-of-life issues for the community and residents.

Here is a big win! The fire department introduced our in-house ambulance service in mid-2022 and has notably enhanced the provision of care in the community by reducing emergency response times. In 2023, the department reported an average ambulance response time of 7 minutes, eight minutes faster than the Orange County benchmark for ambulance response. 

To meet the many recreational interests of our community, we offered programs that engaged more than 8,500 people in 2023 — including adding three more permanent pickleball courts at Alta Laguna Park. We also recently celebrated the opening of Moulton Meadows Park Dog Play Area, a vibrant, pet-friendly addition for all our community’s dog lovers. In our small town, we hosted more than 250 live music performances, and our Arts Commission brought us Music in the Park, Circus Bella, Friday night Flicks, Band on the Bus and procured new and temporary art throughout the city.  

The community embraced Laguna Local, the city’s free, on-demand transit service, with an impressive 63,000 boardings in its first year. We hope to expand to the end of Laguna Canyon Road. In support of our local businesses, the City Council extended the Outdoor Dining and Parklet program, popular for residents and visitors alike. 

The city continues to support nonprofits through the Community Assistance Grant Program. This program has made a meaningful impact on the community by contributing over $1 million to local non-profit organizations over the past five years. 

The city maintains a strong financial position with a balanced budget for the fiscal year 2023-24 and is preparing for the anticipated ‘slow growth’ economy in the coming year.

Soon, new leadership will assume the positions of city manager and community development director. While change is inevitable, our city staff remains committed to serving you -the residents and business community- at the highest level possible. On behalf of my Council colleagues, I extend heartfelt appreciation to each member of our team as they continue to ensure the seamless continuity of services with the dedication we have come to expect from our city team. 

One of the most important roles your city government plays is to keep you safe. That is why one of the City Council’s top priorities is to develop a funding plan for improving Laguna Canyon Road. Undergrounding the power lines on the roadway continues to be a primary focus, along with reducing collision hazards, creating bikeways, pedestrian paths, and overall improved mobility. To implement these changes, we will need some funding help. We are in a very competitive grant process available through FEMA and are working with elected officials at all levels of government. 

When a town looks better, it performs better. We have plans to enhance our downtown through the Downtown Action Plan. This plan describes 24 discreet areas that need a bit of attention. A few examples are the Forest Alley and Lower Broadway. Later this year, the City Council will discuss the Downtown Action Plan and make recommendations to further beautify our town. A by-product of COVID is the Forest Avenue Promenade. Although not contemplated in the Downtown Action Plan, the Promenade remains popular. More on this project in the coming months.  

Laguna Beach is an environmentally focused community, and we remain committed to preserving our natural environment. We have banned single-use plastics, installed 34 refillable water stations throughout the town, increased the frequency of trash collection in the summer, and introduced a city-wide balloon ban. Concurrently, we are developing our Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which will guide the city toward achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. This comprehensive plan will also offer recommendations of ways to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change. The City Council has made it a priority to explore solar panel deployment at our facilities to reduce our carbon footprint, provide clean energy backup capabilities and support the electrification of our City fleet. And when dangerous conditions arise, we want to ensure that critical support services remain fully operational.  

Affordable housing is both a human need and a state mandate. As we know, housing shortages exist throughout California, and Laguna is no exception. As a largely built-out community, we are examining opportunities like adaptive reuse, permitting housing on 2nd and 3rd stories of commercial buildings, deed-restricted ADU, and city-provided incentives. Senior housing, accommodating long-time community members, and housing for young people are needed. Designated artist live/work units are needed to support our dwindling artist community. Supporting our local artists is imperative. Not only are artists cherished members of our town, but the arts are also a prime economic engine of our economy.  

Another priority of the City Council is improving the Customer Experience in our Community Development Department. We have been listening to your helpful feedback and are determined to streamline the processes to eliminate bottlenecks, decrease wait times, and avoid costly delays. 

Some of the progress to date includes an online appointment system, expanding over-the-counter permit issuance and implementing a digital platform to access development plans. Underlying many of the challenges in Community Development is the zoning and municipal code. 

We are pleased that our investment into the former St. Catherine’s property is proving to be a popular site for recreation. Drop-in basketball, indoor pickleball, and volleyball are available in the beautiful gymnasium, and we finally have a designated place for skateboarders to enjoy. Educational youth camps, various arts and crafts are also offered at the center. We will be expanding programming in the coming months, so stay tuned for more fun activities. 

The acquisition of this property has allowed us to respond quicker to safety-related issues in South Laguna. We have added both Police and Marine Safety substations to the facility and will soon have a fully equipped Emergency Operations Center. The space is also a cultural hub with room rentals for community groups and non-profits. 

The road ahead is both challenging and full of promise. Our focus remains on enhancing customer service, beautifying our town, enabling future generations to make their homes in the community in which they grew up, protecting our bluebelt and greenbelt, and filling crucial leadership positions at City Hall to help us make our aspirations a reality. As we work toward these goals in the year ahead, let’s come together with optimism, creativity and civility, fueled by our love for Laguna Beach.

In community spirit,

Sue Kempf, Laguna Beach Mayor

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