By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
Almost half of the $2.2 million in revenue anticipated from the Measure LL-approved increase to Laguna Beach’s transient occupancy tax will fund utility under-grounding.
Recommendations on the rough breakdown of how the $2.2 million in annual tax revenue will be spent were presented by City Manager John Pietig at the Dec. 13 Laguna Beach City Council meeting. In it, utility under-grounding got the biggest chunk with an estimated $1 million dollars. “It’s a top priority,” he said.
The city plans a special City Council meeting to further discuss the allocation of LL funds on Tuesday, Jan. 17. A citizen’s Measure LL oversight and audit committee is also being established, which is to also provide a public accounting of annual LL expenditures. The city seeks five Laguna Beach residents for the committee willing to serve a five-year term. The deadline to apply is Friday, Jan. 13, and interviews will be held Tuesday, Jan. 31.
“Especially in the first year, we have to be vigilant in reviewing how things are working and not, and what they are actually costing and what mid-course corrections we should make along the way,” said City Council member Bob Whalen, noting that the committee will play a role in remaining attuned to voter’s interests.
The bed tax will increase the transient occupancy tax by 2% to 12%, generating an estimated additional $2.2 million. The measure, which was approved by voters on Nov. 8, was described as earmarked for increased fire and police protection, utility under-grounding, and cleanliness of sidewalks and streets. Hotels started charging overnight patrons at the higher rate Jan. 1.
“I think the emphasis here is on items we highlighted with the public and the voters and we are true to the emphasis on public safety,” said Whalen. “You gotta start somewhere, and these are estimates and round figures.”
Whalen, who made utility under-grounding a theme of his re-election campaign, also strongly supported the tax increase in order to underwrite preventative steps to improve public safety. Undergrounding utility lines lowers the risk of wildfires and road closures and removes obstructions where vehicle collisions regularly occur.
“When there is a collision, it’s not just the person hitting the pole,” Pietig said. “It does impact the whole community.”
Pietig recommended that the remaining $1.2 million be spent on additional public safety staff. The police department would add two additional beach patrol officers and a community outreach officer. The fire department seeks an upgrade in paramedic certification status at all four fire stations and would add a civilian fire marshal position. Two marine safety officers would also be hired, adding 200 days of additional lifeguard coverage to beaches.
“The word is out on Laguna Beach,” Pietig said. “Our secret beaches are no longer secret thanks to social media. We are seeing an increase to our visitor population.”
Annual visitors, estimated at 6 million by the promotion bureau Visit Laguna Beach, create increased demands on city resources and account for the added staff requests, according to Pietig. He says in just the last five years, police calls are up 12 percent, fire calls are up 26 percent and aquatic rescues are up a whopping 400 percent.
“With the influx of visitors and the great amounts of times they are spending throughout our community, these are needs we have to address,” Pietig said.
Sidewalk cleanliness is also an earmarked LL expense. The city estimates an initial $20,000 for deep steam cleaning will help remove grime from the most trafficked areas.
“That has been an issue for me,” said Mayor Toni Iseman. “Our sidewalks, some of them are so dirty, you can wash them frequently and they are still going to look bad.”
The LL revenue will also fund an increase in the frequency of downtown and Coast Highway sidewalk cleaning and regular restroom cleaning at the Main Beach and Heisler Park restrooms. Currently sidewalks are cleaned monthly; the plan calls for five times a week. Restrooms are cleaned twice daily during peak season; that will become hourly.
“This is a substantial increase, more than the city has done before,” Pietig said.