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Laguna Beach

 Volume 14, Issue 51  |  June 28, 2022


Budget discussion focuses on less costly items related to covering utility boxes, public safety items

By SARA HALL

While there are some bigger ticket items on a list of budget modifications for the mid-year financial update, this week’s discussion focused on a few of the less costly items.

Most of the comments during the Tuesday (March 15) City Council meeting were concentrated on $55,000 for vinyl wrapping utility boxes, $60,000 for the Community Risk Assessment: Standards of Cover report for the Laguna Beach Fire Department and $450,000 to update the Climate Action Plan.

Ultimately, council voted 5-0 to approve the updated budget and other items. They added recommendations to move the cost of the Main Beach Management Plan to the Measure LL funds, earmark $200,000 to be put aside for housing and rename the utility box item to “cleaning up” instead of “wrapping.”

The item included updating the budget and adjusting for increased ending balances of the various city funds, along with some mid-year modifications.

“It’s very clear and really comprehensive,” said Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen.

The item also includes a resolution setting the hourly/part-time pay rates to comply with state minimum wage requirements and a side letter agreement with the LB Police Employees Association to approve an incentive for additional training.

It also included an ordinance adjusting the purchasing limits for department directors from $10,000 to $30,000 and the city manager from $30,000 to $75,000.

Each year after an independent audit is completed, the city’s finance staff calculates the ending balances for various city funds. Council then updates the budget by adopting the revised beginning fund balance figures and recognizing the “savings,” which is the increase in the available fund balance.

The report lists several funds that exceeded estimates, including the general, capital improvement and parking funds.

The general fund, the city’s main operating fund is ending the year with $6.9 million above the 20% reserve, with revenues exceeding budget estimates by $4.1 million in revenue (higher property tax, sales tax and transient occupancy tax revenue) and departments saving approximately $1.2 million.

“We’re seeing higher numbers in all the funds because the city just did better than what we expected,” said Administrative Services Director Gavin Curran.

Last year, staff budgeted for an anticipated “bad” revenue scenario, he explained. However, in 2021, revenues rebounded well across all sources. 

Budget discussion utility box

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Photo by Maggie Henrikson

A nicely decorated utility box in Laguna Beach

On Tuesday, there was quite a bit of commentary from councilmembers about a proposal to appropriate $55,000 to vinyl wrap all traffic control utility boxes along Coast Highway, Broadway and Laguna Canyon Road. Council would still need to approve the design of the wraps at a future meeting.

Councilmember Toni Iseman recently asked about possibly wrapping the utility boxes, said City Manager Shohreh Dupuis.

The city hasn’t done it in the past and so it’s never been budgeted for, she explained. After looking into it and comparing nearby cities, Dupuis discovered that it would cost between $5,000 to $10,000 per utility box, depending on the size.

The $55,000 was just an estimate, Dupuis emphasized.

She’s also unsure of the current inventory of utility boxes in the city.

The city doesn’t own any of the utility boxes, Dupuis explained. Some control traffic signals, others belong to Cox or Southern California Edison.

“We wouldn’t be able to touch them without getting permits,” Dupuis said.

They’d have to get the permit(s), develop a program, hold an artist competition (if council wanted the wraps to feature custom designs) and work with the agency (Caltrans, SCE, etc.) to paint or cover the box.

She’s seen some cities where the artist actually paints the boxes, while others create their design on a vinyl wrap and that gets placed around the box.

This project went to the Arts Commission twice within the last few years and both times they rejected the proposal.

“They’re not in support of it,” said Mayor Sue Kempf, noting that commissioners mentioned the item at this week’s meeting.

On Monday (March 14), during council and staff communications, several commissioners asked why it was even on the budget modification list since they’ve twice denied the project. None of them wanted it either time it was discussed, commissioners pointed out.

Most recently, the idea was brought to the Arts Commission at the January 10 meeting. At the time, commissioners felt it wasn’t an art program unique to Laguna Beach and that it wasn’t appropriate for Laguna Beach.

Questioning if it would be a solid color or an artistic design, Kempf noted that the city already has a great public art program. Decorating utility boxes would bring it down a notch.

“To me, it looks like graffiti,” Kempf said. “I want to keep our public art at a level where it’s phenomenal.”

She doesn’t even notice them anymore, Kempf said, but driving around specifically looking for them, she did realize they could use some cleaning up. A single solid color to create some consistency would also be acceptable, she added.

“But go through all that (multi-agency process) just to put some art on utility boxes doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Kempf said.

Although, once someone notices the boxes, they become an unsightly annoyance, Iseman said.

Budget discussion firefighters

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Courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach firefighters deployed to a wildfire last year

There were also some public comments supporting the fire department’s Community Risk Assessment: Standards of Cover for $60,000. The purpose of completing the study is to assist LBFD in ensuring a safe and effective response force for fire suppression, emergency medical services, and specialty response situations.

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The $450,000 for a CEQA certified Climate Action Plan and, the costliest item on the list, reserving $4 million for future city facilities, were also mentioned in comments regarding public safety.

Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee Chair Matt Lawson said they support the fire department’s report that will evaluate the fire department’s structure and staffing, as well as align LBFD with current National Fire Protection Association standards.

They also support the $4 million set aside for future city facilities, provided that it can be used to replace the “inadequate, outdated, and possibly unsafe” South Laguna fire station.

“Those of us who live south of Downtown and the firefighters who protect us deserve better,” Lawson said.

They can’t let this vital facility be debated and delayed for decades, he added.

“Both projects address urgent public safety needs,” he said.

Laguna Beach faces an unprecedented citywide wildfire threat in the midst of what leading climate scientists have recently determined to be the worst regional drought in hundreds of years. That’s likely to last through the remainder of this decade, Lawson added.

Lawson also suggested the city incorporate a significant fire safety component into the Climate Action Plan item, since a wildfire or urban conflagration in Laguna Beach would also be an environmental catastrophe.

“We cannot protect our residents and our community without also protecting our environment,” Lawson said.

He recommended asking the EDPC and the Environmental Sustainability Committee to collaborate on climate action plan recommendations.

Several other residents and/or EDPC members commented on the same items, noting that the South Laguna fire station is in dire need of replacement and that the LBFD staffing adequacy evaluation results will identify whether staffing is adequate based on state and national standards, as well as expectations of the community.

EDPC member Tom Gibbs said residents are concerned about wildfire risk after last month’s events.

“The recent Emerald Fire has shaken our community,” he said. “(Residents) are looking to the City Council and city staff to take this seriously and take action necessary to reduce the fire risk in our community.”

These items should be given priority and expedited in an effort to make the community safer, Gibbs said.

Answering a question about the cost of the Climate Action Plan update from Councilmember Peter Blake, Dupuis explained that the cost estimate came from a contract the City of Irvine recently awarded to a consulting firm to develop their own plan. The scope of the Irvine plan doesn’t seem to be too different from what Laguna Beach would want, she added.

“I just estimated, I really have no idea until we do a request for proposals for our city,” she said.

It’s just a placeholder, Dupuis emphasized.

Staff has to conduct an RFP and any consultant contract would need to be reviewed and approved from the council.

Kempf echoed a suggestion from public comment that the EDPC and Environmental Sustainability Committee collaborate on the Climate Action Plan.

There are also requests for $60,000 from the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach to support their Dream Play Yard. As of mid-February, the club has raised more than $284,000 in donations from families, foundations, and federal grants and corporations. The request to the city is specifically for the skate park proposed as part of the Dream Play Yard.

While there was also some support for the portable skate park at the Boys & Girls Club, but some concern about injuries and liability if they are essentially making their own ramps with the portable program. Kempf suggested looking at allocating some money for a more permanent project during the upcoming budget workshop discussion in May.

Although not discussed during the council meeting, another item of interest is the $25,000 for a technology upgrade project for the Community and Susi Q Center.

The Laguna Beach Seniors installed professional audio/visual equipment that can host hybrid classes and programs in various rooms.

As city commissions and committees return to in-person meetings, many on the boards are contemplating continuing the hybrid model to include virtually streaming.

On March 7, the Recreation Committee met in person in the community room at Susi Q while both a new committee member and a city staffer live streamed the meeting on Zoom so the public could follow along virtually. At the same time, the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee met entirely on Zoom and discussed meeting format going forward. EDPC opted to stay virtual for the next meeting, then re-evaluate and consider hybrid options. Both groups previously met at the Susi Q before moving to virtual meetings during the pandemic. 

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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