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Laguna makes it official: Sales tax for utilities undergrounding will be on fall ballot

Laguna makes it official: Sales tax for utilities undergrounding will be on fall ballot
A Laguna Beach ballot measure will ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax toward placing utility lines underground on Laguna Canyon Road, pictured in 2016. (File Photo)

It’s official: Laguna Beach voters will consider a tax measure this fall intended to pay for placing utility lines underground along Laguna Canyon Road and improving other key evacuation routes for fire safety.

Following a series of unanimous City Council votes during a special meeting Tuesday, city staff will place the proposed 1-cent sales tax on Laguna’s Nov. 6 ballot.

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The tax — expected to generate $5.6 million annually toward the undergrounding and other fire-prevention efforts — will require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

The measure would raise Laguna’s sales tax rate from 7.75% to 8.75% and could be in place as long as 25 years.

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The entire undergrounding and safety endeavor is expected to cost as much as $135 million. The sales tax revenue would be supplemented by annual City Hall funds — including parking revenue — and some one-time funding from a special Southern California Edison fund and the California Department of Transportation.

Before the council voted Tuesday, many speakers during more than an hour of public comment argued that the tax would not be paid primarily by tourists — as city officials contend — and would drive up Laguna’s cost of living.

Others, however, said the undergrounding effort is essential to prevent fires caused by downed utility lines.

City officials also noted that since 2007, about 60 accidents have felled utility wires along Laguna Canyon Road and caused closures of the thoroughfare.

The Laguna Canyon Road undergrounding would take place roughly between the Art-A-Fair property and El Toro Road. Other safety projects would be at locations including South Coast Highway, Glenneyre Street and Temple Hills Drive. Construction could start in four to five years.

The council rejected another proposed 1-cent tax measure that would have required a simple majority vote for approval and not been dedicated only for the undergrounding and safety project. It could have gone toward maintaining street trees and acquiring open space, among other ideas.

Critics called the non-dedicated tax proposal a “bait and switch” because it had not been discussed earlier this year, like the dedicated tax.

Mayor Kelly Boyd urged Laguna voters to make their voices heard on the undergrounding tax in November.

“Let the citizens of this community make up their mind if this is what they want,” he said.

Councilman Steve Dicterow said he will vote against the tax, even though he voted to place it on the ballot. He called it “not fiscally responsible,” though he added, “Let’s have a robust public debate and see what happens.”

Tom Gibbs, spokesman for Underground Laguna Now, called the safety measures “imperative.”

“How many fires does it take to convince that fires destroy homes, destroy lives?” he said. “This is our best, and likely our last, chance to do this.”

Jennifer Zeiter, founder of Stop Taxing Our Property, called the tax measure a “money grab by the City Council.”

“It’s shameful,” she said. “We deserve better.”

Bradley Zint is a contributor to Times Community News.

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