Council examines budget priorities, including capital improvements

The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday held a study session on the city’s nearly $140-million preliminary budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, an amount that includes about $19 million in proposed capital improvements.

The budget, which faces final adoption in June, is a 6.3% increase from last fiscal year’s adopted $131.5-million budget.

Interim Finance Director Steve Dunivent said this year’s budget takes into account a variety of increased revenue since last year, including $50.1 million in sales taxes, up about 3%; $20 million in property taxes, up 2%; and $1.97 million worth of licenses and fees, up nearly 8.5%.

As has been the norm, much of Costa Mesa’s budget relies heavily on sales and property tax revenue, Dunivent noted.

The city’s pension contribution rates to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, is also going up slightly — about 2% for municipal employees, police officers and firefighters.

“While these are a higher increase than we would like to see ... they are a bit slower of an increase than we’ve seen in the past,” Dunivent said.

City CEO Tom Hatch discussed staffing levels at the Police Department, which recently have been low because of injuries, retirements and, according to exit surveys, a contentious political environment.

The department is budgeted for 136 sworn officers, Hatch said, and has 110 active officers. Most of the 26 vacant positions are in various stages of being filled, he added.

Hatch said two officers are in training, 11 are in the police academy, five are going through background checks and two candidates are being interviewed this week.

Despite this recent effort, more officers will be retiring, and Costa Mesa will continue to have to keep up a “significant recruitment pace,” Hatch said.

Hatch also went through some of his 40 recommended capital improvement projects, which total $19.4 million. All told, 84 projects are proposed at $28.9 million, which would lead to a deficit, Hatch said.

Hatch’s recommendations include $100,000 to add 500 trees citywide; $4.29 million worth of street rehabilitation work; $100,000 worth of new sidewalks and $50,000 worth of sidewalk repair; $40,000 for feasibility studies toward adding athletic field lighting at Estancia High School and Balearic Community Center; an $80,000 city entry sign at Newport Boulevard and Industrial Way, near the Costa Mesa-Newport Beach border; $50,000 toward on-call environmental consultants for Fairview Park; $50,000 for paint and new carpet at the Mesa Verde library branch; and $65,000 toward fixing the roof and drainage at the Costa Mesa Historical Society’s downtown headquarters.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis expressed reservations about the budget’s accounting for legal fees. She said the “true cost” of city attorneys seems to have been “buried.”

“If it’s not clear in our budget, how is it going to be clear to the public?” Genis said.

She also called for a session so the council could decide on budget priorities.

“Men should not be guessing what a woman’s priorities are ... this budget doesn’t necessarily reflect my priorities at all,” she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger responded that Tuesday’s session was exactly that: time for prioritizing and giving feedback.

“I think that’s what this meeting is,” he said. “This is the first shot at it.”

Mayor Jim Righeimer said he appreciated City Hall’s “sea change” toward investing in critical infrastructure.

“If you gotta replace the roof, you gotta replace the roof,” he said. “We should look at this as less optional than we do.”

He was particularly complimentary of the tree-planting idea, saying trees are “nature’s way of doing compound interest” in neighborhoods.

Exceptional trees add “massive value to our communities,” Righeimer said.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece called for building up city reserves.

“It’s difficult to do that in good times when we’re seeing our revenues increase,” she said.

Genis also called for a better animal shelter. Costa Mesa has a poor facility compared to those in nearby cities, she said.

“We kind of went with the cheapest to save money … but until your animal ends up at the shelter, you’ll never know what it’s like down there,” Genis said. “Don’t think you’re never going to need those services.”

City officials said copies of the budget are available for perusal online, at city libraries and at City Hall. Aspects of the document will be reviewed by the Parks and Recreation Commission on May 22, as well as the Finance Advisory Committee and Planning Commission on May 27.

The council’s vote to adopt the budget is scheduled for June 17.