Public safety upgrades lead Laguna Beach budget talks

An Orange County Fire Authority engine was staged on the 300 block of Emerald Bay on Feb 10. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach is projected to see a $6 million revenue increase along with a second round of federal COVID-19 relief funds in the next year, prompting discussions over public safety budgeting in light of the City’s high wildfire risk.

The City Council met with department heads and city staffers in a strategic planning session last Friday to discuss goals for the City’s future. With fire officials now saying wildfire is a year-round risk, a majority of residents in public comment called for the City to begin prioritizing preventative initiatives with special attention paid to the needs of the aging population.

“Public safety is said to be the City’s top priority, but we need to assure our dollars align with our priorities,” said Bill Niccum, a 35-year resident and retired assistant chief of Los Angeles County Fire.

Laguna Beach received a total of $5.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. The first installment was distributed last year, and the City used $2.1 million to balance the budget after pandemic-related losses, said Gavin Curran, director of administrative services.

Another $3.6 million will be available once Laguna Beach receives the second round of funds.

The goal of the session was to identify and prioritize a list of programs to be later voted on by the City Council, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said.

“None of [the initiatives] are being eliminated or ignored,” Dupuis said, adding that the “aspirations” are merely being prioritized for the sake of budgeting and administrative purposes.

A recent resident survey shows Laguna Beach ranked 120 out of 123 communities in concerns of safety from natural disasters, including fire. The California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection has identified 87% of Laguna Beach’s community as being located in areas of highest possible risk.

The density and age of Laguna Beach’s population also remain a cause for concern. The median age of residents was around 51 in 2019, according to Data USA.

Older residents may not be able to evacuate quickly in case of an emergency.

Fire Battalion Chief Crissy Teichmann said the Laguna Beach Fire Department plans to conduct a community risk assessment to better prepare for future natural disasters.

Teichmann identified the modification measures already taken by the City as a major contributing factor in the containment of the Emerald Fire, which ripped through 154-acres but left homes and other structures untouched.

Councilmember Toni Iseman said she remembers the 1993 firestorm that destroyed some 366 homes, and understands residents’ concerns. She said she supported using available city funds to underground utilities across Laguna Canyon Road, reducing fire risk.

Around 85% of surveyed residents also supported the City taking over control of Laguna Canyon Road from CalTrans, not just for the undergrounding of utilities but for improved transit of bicyclists and pedestrians.

Another proposed initiative, the replacement of Fire Station 4 in South Laguna, received 67% support in the resident survey, but some public comments expressed concern that a former restaurant recently purchased by the City would be a problematic location. . The project would cost an estimated $8 to 12 million and is anticipated within one to five years.

A completed list of prioritized initiatives is expected to be brought back to City Council March 29.

In other business, Teichmann unveiled one of the new ambulances for Councilmembers and city staffers to view during a break in the meeting.

City Council voted back in December to transition to an in-house ambulance program, which is expected to cut down on response times and allow the City greater control over the quality of care for residents.

A team of 12 full-time ambulance operators will crew a fleet of three ambulances under the new program. At least two teams will operate in the City around the clock.

The new program is expected to launch July 1.

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