Laguna budget includes paying down unfunded pension liability

Pensions and public safety took center stage as the Laguna Beach City Council weighed in last week on how the city should spend its money in the next fiscal year.

The council directed the city to set aside $1 million in the next fiscal year to start paying down Laguna Beach's unfunded pension liability for non-public safety employees in the California Public Employees Retirement System at a special meeting May 29. The contribution could increase to $1.4 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The move is designed to speed up payment of the unfunded liability. If Laguna pays $1.4 million a year starting in 2015-16, it will pay the liability off in 26 years and save $12 million, according to a city staff report.

The city's unfunded liability as of June 30, 2012, for all CalPERS pension plans is $53 million, according to the report.

Councilman Bob Whalen, a public finance lawyer, said he was encouraged by the pension report.

"There are a lot of cities that ... are going to take 25%, 30%, 35%, 40% of their general fund [to put into CalPERS]," Whalen said. "We've got this thing under control and, in fact, we are ahead of it. We're not going to be crushed by these pension payments."

The council also voted for added safety measures in the city during a budget workshop June 3. In addition to hiring another police officer and acquiring a K-9 as previously reported, the council agreed on spending $15,000 for an Orange County Sheriff's Department helicopter to occasionally fly over Laguna Canyon to spot trespassers and any possible campsite fires; and $125,000 to expand the city's fuel modification program.

The council must approve all budget decisions at its meeting Tuesday night.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman voted for the helicopter program with reservations.

"The $15,000 for an occasional helicopter could be better served by regular foot patrol, finding campsites, taking them apart," Iseman said.

The helicopter, which uses state-of-the-art infrared technology, would complement the foot patrol officer, City Manager John Pietig said.

"Police go after the encampments after the flyover," Pietig said. "I share [Police Chief Paul Workman's] concern that a foot patrol program is not effective because it could take a group of officers more than two weeks to canvas the canyon."

Council members also favored setting aside $200,000 for an urban planner, which the city anticipates hiring in the next year, to tackle such issues as traffic circulation, parking and pedestrian and bicycle safety. The city is still determining the planner's specific duties, Pietig said.

The council did not approve spending $1 million to rehabilitate and re-landscape the Laguna Canyon Road median between Forest Avenue and 500 feet north of Canyon Acres Drive. The project is tentatively scheduled to begin in five years, and some council members want the median to complement other projects slated for the area such as the Village Entrance and the Festival of Arts' facade renovation.

Council members also did not support spending $150,000 a year — in addition to the current expenditure of $320,000 — to open the Alternative Sleeping Location 24 hours a day. The overnight emergency shelter in Laguna Canyon is open from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. daily and offers 45 beds.

Residents at council meetings in the last two months have said the homeless disturb customers downtown while canyon homeowners are concerned about transients wandering in their neighborhood.

But Councilman Kelly Boyd said the ASL was open during the day in the past and it didn't alleviate problems elsewhere in the city.

"Some people stayed out there, but it did not prevent people from going into town," Boyd said.

The city will not be dipping into reserves with its proposed budget and will maintain a 20% reserve in the general fund, city finance Director Gavin Curran wrote in an email.

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