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Laguna Beach


Council chops spending to compensate for financial losses due to COVID-19

By BARBARA DIAMOND

The City Council on Tuesday approved most of the budget cuts recommended by City Manager John Pietig to prevent cessation of essential services during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Cuts totaled about $10 million. Deferrals and reductions totaled $1.6 million. 

“We need to batten down the hatches,” said Councilwoman Sue Kempf. “I think we are in for a helluva time.”

She said council should approve whatever is needed to run the city. “Everything else is not important.”

The goal of the cuts is to keep the city’s 10 percent General Plan Reserve Fund intact and to preserve the Disaster Fund, said Finance Director Gavin Curran.

“We don’t know when the next disaster will happen,” said Pietig. “Mutual aid may not be available from surrounding communities that might be in the same situation.”

Mayor Bob Whalen announced earlier in the meeting that the relief fund started by some folks after the 1993 fire has been revived as the Laguna Beach COVID-19 Relief Fund.

“The Laguna Beach Community Foundation is the vehicle for donations, focusing on workers,” said Whalen. 

Fourteen residents called in to comment on the proposed cuts, three of them successful in urging the council to defer the cut of the $500,000 reserved funding for the South Laguna Community Garden. 

“The garden had city support and it took a lot of time to get financial support,” said former Mayor Ann Chrisoph. “Don’t take it off the books.”

Village Laguna President Johanna Felder called in to express the groups’ opposition to some of the proposed cuts, particularly to the garden and digester, also criticizing such items being discussed at a meeting in which residents cannot attend in person.

“I would encourage the city to be careful about the difference between budget cuts and budget deferrals,” said John Thomas. “Many items could simply be rolled over.”

Public safety was addressed by Tom Gibbs, particularly cuts that affected the fire department. 

Pietig said he had consulted with the heads of all departments before making the recommended cuts.

Among the cuts in the General Fund approved to compensate for an expected $6 million loss in its revenue:

--$2,500,000 targeted savings in city salaries and operations

--$292,000 for Wayfaring signage 

--$600,000 Open Space Fund transferred back to the General Fund

--$250,000 for investment gains and losses, no longer needed

--$778,000 transfer to the Parking Fund to repay Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety

The expected Measure LL revenue loss is $1,200,000. Proposed cuts total $1,300,000, including $200,000 for the unfilled position of Fire Inspector, which was deferred.

Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Committee Chair Matt Lawson urged the council to no avail to restore $800,000 of the cuts related to wildfire protection.

The Capital Improvement Fund was reduced by $2,300,000, the same amount the fund is expected to lose in revenue. 

City officials hope to negotiate a deal with Caltrans to fund the last $2 million the city owes on the Coast Highway Sidewalk Improvement Project. 

The Parking Fund expenditures were reduced by $2,405,000, but the proposed $805,000 reduction for the preservation of the digester and removal of the sludge within was put on hold. 

“We’re buying time,” said Pietig.

 

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