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Stu News and KX 93.5 Forum: Part Two

By ALANNA WIGHT

Candidates Jorg Dubin, Judie Mancuso, Peter Blake, Toni Iseman, Sue Kempf, Allison Mathews, Cheryl Kinsman, Paul Merritt, Lorene Laguna, and Ann Christoph were given anywhere from 15 seconds to two minutes to answer questions at the Stu News/KX 93.5 Forum. The forum was broadcast on the local station and posted on the Stu News Facebook page. For those who missed it, here is Part Two (Part Three will run on Tuesday).

What are some of the takeaways looking at the last 10 years of City budgets? (A detailed compilation of City budgets was provided to candidates to analyze and offer feedback on – this chart was also projected onto a big screen for the audience to see) (2 minutes)

Dubin: “My background as an artist, all my life since I was 15, supporting myself… some months are great, some months are not so great. It’s called living within your means…So that’s what I’ll bring in terms of looking at budgets, looking at numbers, living within your means, reallocating funds where they need to be, and quit wasting money on things like expensive consultants when we know what to do here in town.”

Mancuso: “First of all, I see that it’s growing, that’s one thing…What I [also] see in the budget is we need to live within our means. We need to do fire prevention and mitigation, and if that includes undergrounding the poles on the canyon, then we can plan for that and do a pay as you go…I would like to spend our money on preventing fires every way we can and if a fire starts, getting it out immediately.”

Blake: “I run a small business. I live within my means. I have a business manager, and I have a CPA that deals with all of these things. If we find ourselves in a position where we’re questioning our budget, then we need to let go of people that are not doing their jobs properly. We also need to have it audited. If we are all talking about a budget that isn’t working, if it doesn’t sound right to us, we throw these numbers around in the tens of millions, then we need a professional audit and we need to be able to sit down not as residents, but as people we respect.”

Iseman: “What you see if you study this budget is a gradual increase of money coming into the community, and you also see places where it holds still. It holds still when the economy gets soft and when the real estate market gets soft, that’s what generates so much of what we have. And every time a house turns over, someone buys it and it’s valued at the price that was determined when it was sold. So if we start seeing people losing their homes, then our budget gets a little shaky.

“We have an abundance of money but we have abundance of things to spend it on. Those visitors that come to our town cause us to spend a lot of money on police, a lot of money on fire and paramedics. We have lots of lifeguards…From the standpoint of the residents who are righteously frustrated about what’s happening to our town…we have to figure out the best way possible to cushion our residents from those things and that money needs to be found in these budgets.”

Kempf: “What stands out to me of course is we’ve had a 33 percent increase in our property taxes, which tells us of course that we’re having housing value appreciations, which is nice for all of us who own homes here. I think, given the money that we’re leveraging, I think we’ve got a pretty poor investment return on the amount of money. I see the BID tax is up that’s being used for services, because we’re having a lot of tourists come to town, and they’re using that for services and a little bit for undergrounding. And if you notice parking, it’s inelastic, which means you keep raising the parking prices on the meters and they keep coming. And that’s good news for us. They want to come and they want to pay, we’ll just jack up the prices until they stop paying and then it’s elastic. 

“One of my concerns, and I don’t see it reflected here, I don’t see our payments for unfunded pension liability…And then on the spending side, we just had the Arts Alliance forum last Saturday, and we talked a lot about what’s happening in our cultural arts, but I have no issue on spending money on cultural arts in Laguna. It’s a big economic driver of our economy.”

Mathews: “I can’t make heads or tails of these numbers. And I don’t have an MBA from Harvard, but some things just don’t make sense. I don’t mind spending money, but I’ve got to tell you, I spent time with the Police Department and with the Fire Department, we all did, and these poor people, the fire people said ‘please just give us $15,000 so that we can get paramedics on these engines. We are sleeping on mats on the floor. Yes, a couple of our stations were retrofitted for earthquakes but that was back in 1981, so that they implode instead of explode.’ We’ve got to hire more cops. We’ve got to support our first responders.

“If you want to spend money, do infrastructure, fix the first responders, let’s get ourselves in a safe position before we start decorating ourselves with fancy Village Entrances.”

Kinsman: “We owe $58 million on our pension debt; we’re paying 7 percent interest. We’re earning 2 percent on our invested funds; we’re paying 7. So now the City wants to increase the sales tax? What is that sales tax for? That sales tax is going to pay the interest only on a $130 million bond to underground telephone poles? To underground telephone poles? It will only cover the interest. Where’s the principal going to come from? It’s going to come from Measure LL, it’s going to come from credits, it’s going to come from the parking fund, it’s going to come from every extra dollar we don’t even have. My son, I use him as my shill, 24 years old, he will make the last payment on that bond when he’s 54. Think of that. We’re skipping an entire generation, for what? Just so we can underground telephone poles?”

Merritt: “The City of Laguna Beach has a huge problem, and it hasn’t come because we’ve been lucky. North Carolina, Texas, hurricanes overseas, we see what we call the emergency. The Emergency Fund for Laguna Beach, according to our budget, is $6 million. Last year, the City Council only put in $60,000. That’s peanuts. Just wait until there’s a problem. You’ve got to have Council that has the foresight and can sacrifice in other area. We have 262 people that are employees in our city, approximately, and 342 are retired. Have you ever tried to run a business where more people are retired than are working?

“But I’d like to also look at the policing thing…We had four traffic police six years ago; we have one now. That police person can barely write the traffic accidents; that’s why we’ve got a raceway out there. We’ve got to shift the funding to protect the public safety and welfare of the people in this community.” 

Laguna: “Fifty-four percent of this general budget comes from you, from your property taxes. That means that you are the resident stakeholders. That means that the City Council needs to listen to you. I believe that the City Council should not be voting on capital expenditures that are over $5 million or perhaps 10; that should go to vote of the people. I absolutely do not want to be the one to vote an economic fire on this community should Measure P pass, which I hope it doesn’t…I would not want to put that on the community or be responsible for that. I would think that the residents should be the ones to decide.”

Christoph: “The first thing that I noticed about these budgets is that they are three times as high as when I was on the Council the last time. So 1994, we had about a $37 million budget and now we have the $98.6 million budget and it’s a huge responsibility and a huge increase in the available funds and in the costs that we’re having to pay. These lists don’t really tell the story. It requires a scrutiny of a book that’s about this thick…it requires a lot of study and understanding and questions of the City Manager, questions of the department heads, and people in the departments to understand which things they ask for that don’t appear anywhere on this document…You really do have to have someone who wants to get into the weeds on these figures and what’s happening in the departments to make them function in an optimum way and make sure that residents are getting their money’s worth.”

Stu News candidates

Click on photo for larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Candidates (L-R) Jorg Dubin, Judie Mancuso, Peter Blake, Toni Iseman, Sue Kempf, Allison Mathews, Cheryl Kinsman, Paul Merritt, Lorene Laguna, and Ann Christoph

Laguna has been a unique village, that some might call the best small town in the world, for 100 years. As we move forward, how important is it that we maintain or pay respect to our history and heritage? (1 minute)

Mancuso: “It’s hugely important. It’s what gives Laguna Beach its feel is our village and that character, that charm. Now we can’t have dilapidated buildings and there’s such a thing as things that are not truly historic, they’re just old, and old stuff that doesn’t look good anymore, I’m good with replacing that. Now it has to be tastefully done, and it has to work, but I don’t think that people should be browbeaten either by the Design Review Board, which I have personally experienced. I watched a man put an awning out at his store, and he wanted yellow and I’m telling you, they beat him into submission until he reached white.”

Blake: “It’s time to get Village Laguna out of our town. Since 1970, they’ve been bragging about the height limits and everything else and thank you so much for doing that. You’re right up there with Led Zeppelin and Dark Side of the Moon. But you know, this is 2018, and we’re tired of you. We don’t want you in our pockets anymore. We don’t want your nanny state anymore. We don’t want you telling us what we can and can’t do, what bush we can plant in our garden, what color white we can paint our houses, it’s time to move on. Thank you for the history. I’m looking towards the future.”

Iseman: “Maybe there’s a brand new town that Peter can live in? This year, more than ever, we had a celebration of our history and our heritage. The Greenbelt just had a 50th anniversary, the Museum had a 100th anniversary. It’s a town that is special and people like to come here, because there’s a there there, and we have cherished that which is here. It’s not like everything new and shiny and sterile that surrounds our community. So more than anything, co-existing with the future and the past is a fine line, and I think we’ve been doing it well.”

Kempf: “I’m just going to talk for a minute about the arts. We started around 1918 as an arts colony, and there were about 300 people here at that time and half were artists. I’ve been reading a lot about arts in Laguna Beach, and there’s $95 million of direct and indirect economic activity that takes place within Laguna Beach every year. And 65 percent of that is supported by the residents; 35 percent by those outside of Laguna Beach. And we talk about being vital and we talk about our history, particularly in the arts; we need to be very encouraging and supportive of the arts. That really drives our economy and it’s really good for Laguna Beach, and I just wanted to make you all aware of that.”

Mathews: “I am all for supporting historical value to Laguna Beach. One of the reasons Jack and I decided to move to Laguna was because we heard that it was like this cool, hippie, artsy community. So that’s what you were known as, so let me just start there, throughout the country perhaps throughout the world. So I’d like to preserve that. As far as actual buildings, sure, I think that to go into the future, Peter’s concentrating on the future, I don’t think that means you have to neglect the past either. I think that you can have – I was on the Preservation Society and I have dealt with the Preservation Society, and these are tough, tough people. So come up with three deal breakers and then give the rest to the business owner or to the homeowner to figure it out. That’s it; it shouldn’t be that hard.”

Kinsman: “I’m an infrastructure person. So let me describe to you a historic building in South Laguna known as Fire Station #4. If you go there, you’ll notice the paint is peeling, it’s rusty, it won’t even hold a modern fire engine. So it’s historic but it needs to be moved to a larger location. As a matter of fact, when we move it to a larger location, the garden could go right there where the fire station used to be. We also have a 1931 fire engine that no longer runs…So yeah, historic is wonderful, but I’m an infrastructure person, and we can be historic and still fix up our stuff.”

Merritt: I’ve had the good fortune of living in almost every part of town and what I’ve seen is in this town used to be a tapestry and now the tapestry has been broken apart. It’s been broken apart because there’s too much government central planning. Isn’t than an oxymoron, the downtown City Council is doing central planning? There are some people that are complaining that our history and our heritage will be damaged because now we’re turning to Laguna beach into an amusement park and the Village Entrance was described…as an entry to Disneyland…and it’s going to bring more visitors here that we don’t need going to the beach. On the other hand, we’re not protecting the areas in South Laguna, the little rural neighborhoods, from the onslaught of constant traffic and we’re not paying attention to the Thousands Steps issue.”

Laguna: “Paying respect to our history and our heritage…we have to ask ourselves who are we and what do we want to be? I see the work that was done at [seven-degrees] and I see that Laguna Beer Garden that was put there and it’s absolutely beautiful, just the refurbishment of that area is brilliant. We need to say to ourselves does Paris, France ask themselves this question? We can be that; we can have and maintain our village atmosphere and our charm…but we can also clean it up and make it nice. Old and dirty does not mean historic, we need to restore and that’s where I see us moving forward is making our village charming and clean and safe for the residents.”

Christoph: “We have a wonderful town and we can all these things that the other candidates have mentioned but we need to keep in mind that the character is not just individual buildings, it’s whole neighborhoods, it’s the whole feel of the town and that has many different components. The landscape component, the scale of the buildings, the setbacks, the feel of the streets. The fact that we are a village psychologically and sociologically that we work together as a community. That we have, how many different nonprofits working together?...So all that is really village character; it’s not just buildings, but the buildings are extremely important and the neighborhood settings are very important to make that setting to make the sociology part work.”

Dubin: “I’m going to talk to our cultural heritage and not just our historical heritage. The town was founded by artists; that’s true, we all know that. 300 out of 600 that lived here. Now we have 300 artists in a town of 23,000 and that’s the fault and misdirection of our City Council because we’re bleeding our creatives, and this city will be judged on how we treat our creatives that we’re not doing a very good job of that here.

“So unless we change course in that regard, we can stop calling ourselves an art colony and start calling it something else, an expensive retirement community or an expensive beach community with a lot of tourists.”

Do you support more parking garages in Laguna Beach whether underground or belowground, whether in town or in the canyon, whether publicly or privately funded? (45 seconds)

Blake: “I do. We talk about how we have no parking in town, we have no mobility in town, where are we going to put all these cars. We need parking, it’s that simple, it’s not a complicated issue. So let’s look at what we have that we can add to, ACT V. Let’s look at some of the parking areas in North Laguna, South Laguna and Central Laguna where we can add parking. I hear this whole thing about being resident serving like some of my colleagues say, no one’s up here saying that they’re tourist serving…I don’t want any more tourists coming into this town. But I’m reasonable enough to know that if we can’t park cars, what are we supposed to do with them?”

Iseman: “We want to be fiscally responsible; we have to realize we are a tale of two cities. We have the three-month summer craziness and then we have nine months out of the year. A parking structure in the downtown will be busy for the summer and then it will hemorrhage money the rest of the year. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need pocket parking in other parts of town, and there are areas where we can increase parking and take the load off the neighborhoods. We have to make sure that we keep the streets back to the residents. When we approve big projects and we don’t have a place to put the employees, we’ve got a problem because the burden becomes that of the neighborhood.”

Kempf: “We could put small peripheral lots around downtown and that would be a good thing for us to do. One of the things in the downtown when you’re a Planning Commissioner, you find that there are businesses that could often come to downtown are often tied up into parking requirements and so sometimes really interesting businesses will come to the City counter and apply for a permit and find that parking requirements are so stringent that they’re not permitted to come in. A lot of the residents would like them [here].”

Matthews: “I think that we do need more parking but I’m wondering if during the tourist seasons if we can’t have parking on the perimeter of Laguna Beach and because the trolleys are free bringing in the tourists that way. I’m not sure, maybe even existing parking that is there now, maybe somehow we could make a deal with the owners to use more of theirs…the idea of building more parking, it’s like paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. It doesn’t feel right but I’m going to put a question mark on this one because I’ve got to look more into it but right now I would say no.”

Kinsman: “The parking situation right now where we are calling the Village Entrance, that should not be, and if I’m on the Council I will, if possible, stop it. We need to have a parking structure up against the hillside. There are parking structures now when you look at them, you can’t even tell they’re parking structures. That’s where we need the parking. I hear people saying ‘we don’t need it in the winter,’ well we will. Look over there across that mountain. There are thousands more houses that are going to be built. We need more parking and it should be up against the hillside at the Village Entrance.”

Merritt: “There’s a critical issue taking place right now with the downtown parking. There are 120 spaces vanished by the City Council, your current City Council. In the last four public hearings, they said only 10 spaces would disappear but 120 are gone. It’s a huge debacle. Yeah, we’ll have a nice, pretty Village Entrance, but we’ll be missing 120 parking spaces. Something must be done.”

Laguna: “We have six millions tourists said to be coming into town. What is that point of saturation? Where do we say we have enough? Do we have enough parking in this town for all its residents? Absolutely. Why are we having more? Why would we build more? Do you want 9 million people into town? 20 million people into town? Where is the point of saturation? Now we can have employee parking on the peripheral, bring them in with public transportation. There are solutions. But remember, no parking in the Canyon, it is rural, it is small-scale and that is not the place to put parking garages and I will not have it if I’m on Council.”

Christoph: “We’ve been down this path. We started in the early ‘90s, 1994, that new Council came in and said we’ve got to jumpstart a parking garage at the Village Entrance. I don’t know if anyone was here when that was said but I don’t forget that statement. So from 1994 to 2013, we were on the path to building a parking garage. And in the end, we found out that the parking garage wouldn’t pay for itself, that it was too large and too unsightly.”

Dubin: “The people coming to town is not the problem, it’s the cars coming to town. And until we deal with outside peripheral parking, tram lanes that the trams can use, my thought on this is to look over the hill at all the high-density building going on there and to have those people who are developing those provide trams, buses, vans for the residents that live in those areas when they want to come to Laguna Beach, they can get in a van and come down in a tram lane. We’re not bringing more cars into town, that’s what I’m thinking.”

Mancuso: “The ACT V lot has a huge footprint and it is completely being underutilized. There needs to be a multi-stacked parking garage there and I’ve mentioned that you can put a skate park there. I talked to so many people when I was walking in the community in 2016 and there’s so many kids that still want a skate park and parents, so you can plop it on top of there. And then utilizing existing lots and doing leases with all these private lots and utilizing that. So I’m not for building new structures in town; I’m for keeping cars out of town.”

Editor’s note: responses have been abbreviated for space.