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Volume 15, Issue 45  | June 6, 2023Subscribe

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Budget discussion focuses on housing fund, purchasing garden property with conditions


A discussion this week on the proposed fiscal year 2022-23 budget focused on resident-serving projects, the city re-committing $500,000 to purchase the land where South Laguna Community Garden Park is located and creating a housing fund with an ongoing revenue source.

On Tuesday (May 24), Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen commended staff’s work on the budget and emphasized the benefits to local citizens. There are a number of resident-serving programs and projects in the proposed budget, he said.

“I look at this budget and I’m actually quite proud of what we’re doing,” Whalen said, noting a few specific items like the ambulance program, the Neighborhood and Environmental Protection Plan and community capital improvements at local parks. “I think we’ve done a very nice job here of taking advantage of some of the money that we’ve seen come into the budget and put it in some great locations.”

The budget is balanced and city revenues continue to improve, exceeding pre-COVID levels. It also keeps the 20% general fund reserve intact.

The budget appropriations reflect council’s goals and priorities set at the strategic planning session, noted City Manager Shohreh Dupuis.

The proposed budget includes the city’s new ambulance program, new community development staff positions, increased funding for capital equipment, technology projects, renovations for city playgrounds and beach access and funding to continue the Main Beach Management Plan.

“Over the past several years, the city’s financial decisions have positioned the city to manage the uncertainty of rising inflation, the waning of the pandemic and the impact world events have had on our local economy,” Dupuis said.

Although even as the city experiences an economic recovery, long-term financial planning has challenges. Therefore, the budget is only for one year (compared to the previous two-year budgets).

At their March 15 meeting, councilmembers unanimously updated the budget, adjusting for increased ending balances of the various city funds and some mid-year modifications. At that time, 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 (now sitting as a reserve in the general fund, according to city staff) and rename the utility box item to “cleaning up” instead of “wrapping.”

Next step will be the final changes and approval of the budget, scheduled for June 21.

Budget discussion focuses South Laguna garden

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The South Laguna Community Garden Park was the hot topic of the city council’s budget discussion

It’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” budget, Councilmember Toni Iseman said, and it provides an opportunity to look at the community and spread the wealth, referencing the garden in South Laguna, which was discussed at length during the budget workshop.

The reserve fund for the garden was granted a temporary stay of execution following a vote during last year’s budget discussions. Council unanimously approved a six-month extension on June 15 for the fund earmarked for the community garden.

The park in-lieu fund previously held a reserve of $500,000 for the South Laguna Community Garden, it was set to expire on June 30 before council granted the extension.

Councilmembers agreed to the extension after hearing that there was some encouraging developments in the effort to contact the property owner in Saudi Arabia and gauge his interest of selling the property.

At the time, Whalen suggested a limited extension of approximately six months to let the recent developments play out. While he previously thought there wasn’t a reason to continue the reserve because there was no willing seller, it now appears (based on paperwork he’s reviewed and conversations he’s had), there may be some interest in selling the property, he noted at the meeting last year.

This week, a number of residents spoke out supporting the city re-committing funds to help purchase the garden property.

South Laguna Civic Association President Scott Sebastian said the land where the community garden is located should be coming on the market this week, which “changes the game considerably.”

“After many, many years, which we’ve been waiting and trying to get this to happen, finally we have the chance we hope of getting it,” Sebastian said.

They’ve collected 600,000 in donations and pledges, he confirmed. They’d like the city to help them acquire the property.

Village Laguna President Anne Caenn urged the council to restore the funding for Garden Park.

“Restoring the Garden Park funding from the city is critical in making the acquisition feasible,” she noted.

The past few years during COVID have demonstrated how relevant the garden is for the community, she added.

“Garden Park provides a safe and inspiring outdoor experience for the neighborhood and for visitors,” Caenn said.

It serves the entire city and is an important part of the town, she added.

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Some councilmembers agreed about the garden’s importance.

“I’d hate to see the Garden Park go away,” said Councilmember George Weiss. “I’m ready to re-pledge that money.”

Whalen previously committed that if they were able to make a deal with the property owner, he’d support putting the $500,000 city contribution back on the table.

“I’ll stick by that,” Whalen confirmed.

Ultimately, council unanimously approved a motion to commit $500,000 to fill the gap as long as the garden group raised the rest of the asking price.

They should wait to see what the purchase price is because it will likely be notably higher than previous estimates, Mayor Sue Kempf said.

“I don’t want to commit any money at this point,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Although Iseman commented that she doesn’t believe it will benefit their ability to negotiate the deal.

Whalen disagreed, noting that the garden representatives could approach the seller and emphasize the council vote to commit the $500,000 if they raise the rest. That can be very beneficial to working out the deal, he said.

Councilmember Peter Blake said he has “no intention of giving a penny to the garden” without a confirmed deal.

They’ve given them more than a decade to raise the funds and they haven’t been able to purchase the property, he noted. He’d only change his mind if the fundraising was close to the purchase price.

“They haven’t even raised money, they have a bunch of promises,” Blake said. “How about when they’ve raised the amount that they can buy the property for and they’re $500,000 away, then we can look at it?”

Weiss immediately seconded Blake’s suggestion and other councilmembers agreed to the condition.

“But that’s not promises, that’s money in the bank with a deal ready to go with $500,000 left to fund it,” Blake emphasized. “That’s not some pie in the sky ‘We have people willing to give the money.’”

Budget discussion focuses housing

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Council directed staff to create a housing fund during the budget discussion

There was also quite a bit of discussion on Weiss’ suggestion to redirect all or a portion of Transient Occupancy Tax from short-term lodging to an affordable housing program.

“I’d really like to see a contribution that’s meaningful to the housing fund,” Weiss said, noting that affording housing hasn’t been built in town for many years. “We have a moral obligation to do that and I think the public supports that.”

He’d like to see some options for transferring money into the account now as “goodwill” as they develop a permanent funding source. 

The city should be committing some ongoing funding to housing, Whalen agreed.

As new STLs come on and the revenue is not committed elsewhere, it could be redirected to housing, Whalen suggested.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said.

Whalen suggested directing staff to look for $250,000 for housing and return in June with options.

Going forward they could look at new STL permits that get issued that could be dedicated to a new housing fund, Dupuis noted.

Several councilmembers agreed with the idea for an ongoing plan.

“It’s good to start a revenue stream,” Kempf said.

Although setting aside a few hundred thousand each year will take a long time, Kempf noted. The city will soon have a housing administrator, who can develop a plan and might come up with more effective ideas, she added.

The best way to get affordable housing going is to make some amendments to the city code, Kempf said.

“We make it particularly difficult in this town to do any housing – period,” she said.

Setback requirements, density issues and parking restrictions are just a few challenges, she pointed out.

“To me, if we could relax that,” it would help, Kempf said, noting a mixed-use example. “If we could figure out a way in our code to make that happen, I think that’s the best way to encourage housing.”

Adaptive re-use is another idea, she added. Some zoning changes and creative thinking could create affordable housing without building anything in some cases, Kempf said. People don’t use office space as much as they used to, she added as another possible idea.

“We could think about that in terms of using what we have,” she said.

Other wish list items of one-time funding of $145,000 to expand the outdoor warning system in the Bluebird Canyon neighborhood, as well as $140,000 to expand the system in other very high fire hazard neighborhoods, were also approved to move forward.

Several speakers emphasized the importance of preparing the community in case of an emergency. These are critical projects, Whalen agreed.

Other items on the wish list that have moved forward include: One-time funding for $9,600 for an OC Coastkeeper Aliso Beach education program; one-time funding of $100,000 for the design phase of the city hall lobby renovation and one-time funding of $210,000 to replace three police patrol vehicles.

The list also included a cultural arts request for ongoing funding of $19,000 for weekly live performances by local musicians and the installation of a temporary mural at the stage, which was inadvertently left off the proposed budget.


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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