Who is Behind those Doors?
When we walk our neighborhoods we see house after interesting house. Laguna Beach is unique in southern California. You could walk our streets all day and never see two houses the same. They make our walks and drives through town all the more enjoyable. But unless you have a dog on a leash or a baby in a stroller you rarely encounter one of the occupants of those houses in more than a passing manner.
When we started the garden in South Laguna in 2009 we put up a sign, “Building a Community Garden, Come Saturday 9 a.m. to help.” Some of the doors of those houses opened and there they were–people who said they had lived in the community for 20 years or more. Yet, most of us had never seen each other before!
As months passed we got to know each other better, the stories and drama from each family began to be revealed. The impact of the Great Recession was hard felt; job losses, cuts in income, the stress of insecurity. Some struggled to pay the rent. Battles with addiction, splitting up, then getting back together. Pregnancy, morning sickness, and the joys of the new baby’s smile. Deaths of parents, grandparents, and fellow gardeners. Recovering. Children growing up together, learning to plant seeds and sipping tea from garden-grown mint. Kids graduating and off to college. Inside every person an intricate and heart-warming story.
Now when I walk past all those houses I imagine the real people behind those doors—who perhaps I won’t ever see. But they’re somehow not so anonymous because I know that their story is every bit as complex and tragic and joyous as those I have known about from the garden experience.
Now going to city council meetings is another experience altogether. Council members and staff are in their professional mode, and the members of the public are trying to persuade. Putting on their formal selves, they are making their pleas under stress within a two or three minute time window. It’s easy to forget the soft humans underneath, the ones with the complicated and meaningful stories.
On Monday’s special council meeting there was a well-done but technical presentation about our long-range budget challenges. For the most part the story is good. We have substantial property tax income that is increasing 3-4% per year. However, by 2020, the finance director is projecting deficits of $1 million and more. This is due to reduced investment yields in our pension accounts and long-term obligations to retired city employees. More and more of the city’s income will have to be spent to meet those commitments. One way to prevent these deficits would be to cut back on local projects and services.
John Thomas from the audience analyzed that we spend a disproportionate amount of our budget for services related to the tourist population, and contrary to popular belief, income from tourists–sales tax, parking fees, and hotel taxes–contributes much less than we spend to service visitors. He suggested the council investigate ways of recouping costs from the tourists. The recently approved measure to raise the hotel tax will help, but it is not sufficient to prevent the projected deficit.
Additional tourist-generated funds could go toward upgrading police, fire and lifeguard services. Then, rather that cutting back on community improvements residents need and want, we would be able to better fund items such as parks, gardens, beautification, community assistance, street paving, walks and trails, open space, and improved maintenance city-wide.
Then the families behind the doors, with all their worries and aspirations, will know that their tax contributions are going toward improvements to their everyday lives, and keeping a balance between tourism and community.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph helped establish the community garden. She is a former council member.