Council reviews proposed budget, focus on public safety, infrastructure projects

By SARA HALL

City Council last week reviewed the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year and focused on public safety, wastewater and master plans.

On May 14, councilmembers heard the proposed budget for fiscal year 2024-25, including key projects, fund requests and an overview of the capital improvement program. The special meeting also included an overview of the current fiscal climate and proposed changes for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget will return for final review and adoption on June 25.

Councilmembers thanked staff for their work on the draft document.

“That represents a lot of work,” said Mayor Sue Kempf.

The proposed budget includes capital improvement projects of $19.35 million for infrastructure and facilities, funded through a mix of current-year revenues and previously allocated funds.

Assistant City Manager and CFO Gavin Curran noted that the FY 2024-25 proposed budget is balanced with operating revenues of $145.6 million and appropriations of $145.6 million. The general fund, the city’s primary operating fund, has a proposed budget of $92.8 million. The budget also keeps the 20% general fund reserve intact, he added.

It is also aligned with council goals and priorities, he explained.

The budget invests in: Core services to meet community needs; workforce development and training; technology to improve efficiency and service delivery; capital projects to enhance infrastructure, and performance measures to track and improve departmental effectiveness.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

City Council reviewed the fiscal year 2024-25 proposed budget last week

In the proposed budget transmittal letter, Curran explains that the city’s economic outlook can be described as stable, with modest growth.

“This past year, sales tax and transient occupancy tax marked a correction from the economic rebound that followed the pandemic, coming in lower than budget projects. However, increases in interest earnings and community development fee revenue remained strong, surpassing budget estimates and offsetting those revenue declines,” he wrote.

Curran commented that a significant addition this year is the incorporation of performance measures into the budget, as each department has included performance measures currently in use within their operations. This is the first step, Curran noted, which will lead to annual performance comparisons for each department.

Some of the major changes or impacts to the general fund include: Funding for labor agreements and negotiated salary and benefit increases, including pension; information technology upgrades, including new safety computer aided dispatch system; herbicide free fuel modification program; additional funding for city attorney services, and recreation services at the LB Community and Recreation Center.

Curran also highlighted items in other funds, including: $6.6 million for parking enforcement, operations and maintenance; $500,000 for the fire department’s standards of cover from the Measure LL fund and $2.8 million for marine safety services in South Laguna.

This year, through prior council action, the CIP was prioritized to include the fire station no. 4 replacement project and looking at enclosing lifeguard towers at beaches citywide.

The replacement of the lifeguard chairs with enclosed towers will provide them sustained protection from the environment.

Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi noted that they already have a design for an enclosed lifeguard tower so he’d be interested if (going forward, not for this fiscal year) there was a way to move the timeline up so they’d be constructed before the anticipated 2029.

“This is a priority because we really don’t want our lifeguards to be sitting in the sun,” he said.

Assistant Director of Public Works Tom Perez highlighted some notable projects completed this year, including the Moss Street Beach Access improvements, Moulton Meadows dog play area and Laguna Canyon Road medium landscaping.

There are a number of key projects looking to begin construction in FY 2024-25, Perez noted, including:

–Cleo Street Beach access improvements, which should be headed to the Planning Commission soon for design review.

Glenneyre parking structure rehabilitation, which just opened for bids last week.

–Woods Cove assessment district, approved in December and slated to begin construction in July.

–Bluebird Canyon Drive rule 20A utility undergrounding, led by Southern California Edison and scheduled to start in July.

–Anita Street beach access and sewer lift station rehabilitation.

–Sleepy Hollow Lane sewer replacement.

–Main Beach Park renovation, headed back to the Planning Commission in June.

–Police department cabling improvements, which will be a major overhaul to the PD’s IT and cable.

–Fire station 4 replacement for South Laguna.

Perez also pointed out a number of important projects set to kick off the design phase this upcoming fiscal year: Storm drain master plan; wastewater system analysis and master plan update; server room upgrades; fire station 2 emergency generator; Sunset Avenue slope repair; playgrounds and parks renovation; enclosed lifeguard tower installation and Crescent Bay lift station reconstruction.

Answering a council question, Perez explained that the planned work on the storm drain master plan would include bringing in a consultant to look at the plan, identifying projects that are still listed but have been completed, reviewing any changes that have resulted since implementation and identifying new areas that have risen as problematic. It would also be an update and revisiting where the city stands today.

It should run concurrently with the wastewater master plan, he added.

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Rounaghi asked for a council presentation from staff going over the 2008 storm drain master plan before the update gets underway. That would be good to see before they move forward with it, he noted.

It’s also great they are moving forward with a wastewater master plan, he added.

Of the approximately $19.35 million in CIP projects, about $6 million is slated for wastewater improvements, $3.1 million for street improvements and rehabilitation and $2.4 million for parking facilities.

The parking facilities investment is in large part for new parking meters and improvements at the Glenneyre structure, Perez explained.

Rounaghi strongly supported the plan to install parking pay stations, which are easier for a lot of people to use.

“Our parking meters look horrible,” he said.

The plan is to gradually replace the meters and increase the number of pay stations, said Director of Transit and Community Services Michael Litschi.

“We don’t expect to get to a point where we have zero parking meters because of the location of some of the parking meters in an area that doesn’t have a sidewalk or doesn’t allow a pay station to be implemented,” Litschi said. “We’ll, at the end of the program, still have a hybrid system, but we’ll have a much larger concentration of the pay stations.”

Some locations, along Coast Highway for example, have a lot of driveways and alleyways and they don’t want to force people to walk across multiple streets to pay at the station, he explained.

They are looking to place the pay stations in areas with a high concentration of meters, like Heisler Park or certain areas of the Downtown.

Also, they will be license plate-based, Litschi added, so they are working with the police department on the enforcement side and getting the correct cameras.

Weiss also appreciates the move to the pay stations. The meters are sometimes difficult to read in the sun and it’s more efficient so the city doesn’t have to process all the coins.

“You’re improving the efficiency of the system here and probably saving some money,” he said.

The proposed budget also includes $1.8 million for the replacement of four trolleys.

They are past their useful life, Litschi noted, answering a council question. Those will be replaced with EV trolleys. The timing of that purchase will be dependent on the infrastructure. Public works is currently working on a plan for installing EV chargers, he added.

“We don’t want to purchase the trolleys and then not have a way to charge them,” he said.

Although there are some potential temporary solutions to bridge the gap before the permanent infrastructure is in place, Litschi said.

In another budget suggestion that all councilmembers supported, Councilmember George Weiss has been working with LBFD Battalion Chief Andrew Hill to restore the city’s original fire engine, the Seagrave. It was initially bought in 1931, Weiss said, and it’s been sitting idle for more than a decade now.

“It’s a beautiful truck specifically made for Laguna Beach. I think restoring it will be symbolic of our own history since in 2027 we celebrate 100 years,” Weiss said. “It’s quite a treasure.”

But it’s going to cost a lot of money, he added. They’ve met with two local vendors, but there could be more if the project gets sent out to bid.

They’re looking for $150,000, which would be approximately half the cost and taking private donations.

The goal is to start this year and complete the renovation by 2026.

There were also a few requests that were not yet accommodated in the budget, Curran said.

There were two requests for staff positions: $120,000 for a records employee to help in handling the city’s document management system and public records requests; and $193,000 for a cybersecurity IT role, to get someone on staff with the technical skills to deal with the increasingly sophisticated threats.

The position could be provided in another way, noted City Manager Dave Kiff. He can dive into the options before the budget adoption meeting and present more information to council on the matter, he said.

The third request was for a one-time cost of $500,000 related to microgrid resiliency. This issue was brought forward at the annual planning workshop on January 19, Curran noted, as council identified installing solar panels on city facilities as a top priority. At the March 26 meeting, councilmembers directed staff to proceed with issuing a request for proposals for implementing a microgrid resiliency system for four potential sites, along with other locations that staff believes could be viable. Staff is returning to council in summer to present that item, Curran said, so the funding is for that program.

There was also a suggestion for a mobile generator for the emergency operations center. The microgrid could eventually cover that need, Whalen noted, but they can’t wait for that to be implemented. He asked staff to return with a discussion item at the budget adoption time.

Council also agreed to a request from the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce regarding a 50% match of funds to pay for a retail market evaluation (not to exceed $25,000 per agency). It would include an updated assessment of existing retailers, identify challenges to the local business community and determine recommended solutions.

There’s a lot of good information a retail specialist could help with, Kempf said.

“A lot of the retailers are having a difficult time just because retail in general, the retail environment, is not very robust,” she noted.

Councilmembers also supported several other suggestions, including radios for building department, organizational assessment and landscaping improvements.

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


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