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Laguna Voters Pass Tax Hike

Times Staff Writer

A Laguna Beach sales tax increase that will raise money to pay for roads and other infrastructure damaged in a Bluebird Canyon landslide won voters’ approval late Tuesday.

With all 12 precincts reporting, 55.7% of voters approved the half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase.

City officials were pleased with the results.

“I’m just very relieved,” said City Manager Kenneth C. Frank. “This is really the final piece of the puzzle to know how we’re going to get out of this.”

Tripp Meister, 35, whose home on Bluebird Canyon Drive was damaged in the slide, said he wasn’t thrilled about taxes being raised, but he was grateful voters approved the measure.

“I wish we didn’t have to do it. I wish there was a better solution,” he said.

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The sales tax hike is expected to raise $10.2 million over six years. Most of the money will be used to repair the slope that gave way June 1, destroying or damaging 20 homes.

City officials also promised to put part of the money into a contingency fund to pay for any future disaster.

Rebuilding the hill and replacing infrastructure destroyed by the slide will cost an estimated $15 million -- no small sum for a beach city with an annual budget of $57 million.

City officials were relieved when the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced last month it would chip in about $5 million to help replace streets, storm drains, sewers and water lines.

The city also recently received word that Sen. Dianne Feinstein helped secure an additional $2 million to help pay for roads in the Senate version of the transportation bill.

But without the extra sales tax money, Frank said, the city would probably have to continue trimming spending. Scraping together the first $7 million needed to stabilize the slope to prevent more homes from sliding down this winter meant that vacant city jobs weren’t filled and roadwork and other capital improvements were put on hold. The city was also unable to make planned purchases of a new fire engine, police cars and a street sweeper.

Many residents had said they supported hiking the sales tax to 8.25% because otherwise, the city would probably continue gutting its open-space fund and other programs.

Bill Rihn, president of the South Laguna Civic Assn., said he voted for the measure because he didn’t want the council to dip into funds set aside for city improvements.

Laguna Beach, a town of about 24,000, has a history of coming together after landslides and wildfires. In the days after the Bluebird Canyon slide, people opened their homes and wallets to displaced families.

Some say Laguna’s community spirit is a product of the city’s isolation. There are only two ways into and out of the city -- Pacific Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road.

“It’s hard to get to Laguna Beach, relatively speaking, and there’s a sense of community, a sense of neighborliness here,” Rihn said.

“It’s easy to get to know people around here and be friendly.”

Slightly less than 25% of the city’s registered voters turned out for the election, and most of them cast absentee ballots.

The election cost the city about $30,000, Frank said.

The town’s many tourists will probably bear the brunt of the sales tax increase. Even so, Laguna Beach residents have taxed themselves to fund local causes before.

Fifteen years ago, voters overwhelmingly approved a $20-million bond to purchase land from a developer in Laguna Canyon and preserve it.

Five years ago, the local school district needed money to repair its facilities, and 80% of voters backed another property tax bond.

“When it comes to helping our neighbors that have a special problem -- these things don’t happen all the time -- I think there’s a willingness to do it,” Rihn said.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX (OC edition)

Laguna Beach

Measure A --Temporary Sales Tax Increase

*--* 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Yes 2,508 56 No 1,991 44

*--*

Approved measures -- or those leading with 99% of precincts reporting -- are in bold type. Results are not official and could be affected by uncounted absentee ballots.


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