By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
Survey results indicate Laguna Beach residents would support raising taxes to relocate utilities underground, particularly on Laguna Canyon Road and evacuation routes, but unwilling to raise their property taxes to underground utilities in neighborhoods.
The results of the 685-resident survey to assess attitudes towards possible November ballot measures to fund such projects were presented to the City Council this past Tuesday, Feb. 6.
City officials ultimately decided to further explore funding strategies that showed promise and called for another survey in coming months. Staff was also directed to conduct outreach on the issue with local businesses and residents.
The survey by consulting group TBWB Strategies and FM3 indicated that two different tax strategies showed enough resident support to be viable: a 1% sales tax hike and a general obligation bond measure, both for burying utility poles in the canyon and other evacuation routes. Such a project is estimated to cost $135 million.
The extra sales tax found favor among 70 percent of those surveyed, enough to meet the two-thirds majority threshold needed; just 56 percent supported a bond measure.
“Your residents are very clearly aware of the threat to Laguna Beach from wildfires,” said FM3 consultant Andrew Sonnensheim. “Eighty-four percent recognize there are only a few roads that allow residents to evacuate in a natural disaster.”
The survey also tested the placement of two measures on the ballot simultaneously, and found that doing so could jeopardize the viability of both measures if proper community outreach and education isn’t done before November.
Survey questions tested two other potential funding combinations for such a project: a higher property tax increase without a sales tax hike, or a sales tax increase and self-funding relying on city revenue.
A separate issue, ridding neighborhoods citywide of utility poles funded by a parcel tax, was rejected by 59% of respondents. An added 30-year property tax for such a project would amount to $200 per parcel per month.
“There’s not currently support for a neighborhood solution, so we put that one to the side and will focus on the evacuation routes,” Council member Bob Whalen said.
Many residents who spoke echoed the survey’s findings. Tom Gibbs, who said he represented the newly established Underground Laguna Now group, stressed the urgency of the issue.
“We need safety, we need to get these utilities undergrounded now,” Gibbs said. “I’m in support of undergrounding everything. A fire in a neighborhood can spread to the evacuation route. If it’s to be this way, it’s a start and it’s a start I urge the council to pursue.”
One council member expressed skepticism of whether the survey adequately probed public opinion.
“I think there’s a lot of anger out there, and anger tends to be a ‘no’ vote,” Steve Dicterow said.
Currently, Laguna Beach imposes a 7.75% tax on retail sales, a rate consultants said is slightly below other coastal cities in California.
Two business owners in the audience balked at a proposed increase in sales tax, telling the council it would further burden already struggling local businesses.
“That one percent does make a difference,” said Susan Elliot, who owns Twig, a gift and clothing boutique. “People come in our stores, take a picture of our merchandise, find it online and pay zero sales tax.”
Whalen said the city should lessen the proposed burden on residents and take advantage of spending by the annual influx of 6 million visitors. “The typical visitor in Laguna spends $57 dollars,” he said. A 1% sales tax hike would add 57 cents to a visitor’s tab. “That’s going to add up to a lot of money,” he said.
“The city’s in the game, the visitors are in the game, the residents are being asked to be in the game,” Whalen said. “We need the community to step up and I am pretty confident we will.”