Measure of infrastructure

Dick Harlow joined a committee more than 10 years ago to help repair the crumbling infrastructure of Huntington Beach. Every time he drives through town, he's reminded that the fight isn't over.

The longtime public works commissioner, who left last year to join the city's Charter Review Commission, is among those pushing for the passage of Measure O, a November ballot measure that would require Surf City to spend 15% of its general fund every year on infrastructure improvements.

For Harlow, the measure is a long-standing passion. Ever since he began lobbying to fix Huntington's streets and sidewalks at the turn of the century, he began taking note of blemishes around town — overgrown tree roots breaking through the sidewalk, chipped walls and more.

"It got to a point where that's all I could see when I drove down the road," he said.

If Harlow and his fellow campaigners get their way Nov. 2, each of the 15% the city sets aside for infrastructure will go to immediate repairs starting in 2017.

In 1998, the city formed a citizens committee to review local infrastructure and inform the public of areas needing repair. The committee reported two years later that the city would need about $1.37 billion to meet its infrastructure needs over the next 20 years, and in 2002, about 57% of voters passed Measure FF, which allotted 15% of the general fund to infrastructure every year.

The city, though, has spent much of that amount to pay off construction bonds on previous projects, including Pier Plaza, the Huntington Central Park Sports Complex and several city facilities.

Linda Daily, the project manager for the city's Public Works Department, said that in the 2008-09 fiscal year, 23.3% of the infrastructure fund went to debt service, and the amount was projected to be 23.9% for the current fiscal year.

When the city appointed a commission last year to recommend changes to its charter, the members suggested amending the section on infrastructure funding. The City Council approved putting the measure on the ballot this summer.

Measure O, though, has its share of opponents. Both the police and fire unions recommended a no vote when they released their endorsements at the end of August; and the ballot argument against it, written by three council members and former Mayor Debbie Cook, claims the measure would cut $6 million from the general fund every year.

Among the potential reductions, according to the argument, are senior services, branch libraries, park maintenance and 20% in uniformed police patrol.

"As much as we've cut the budget, over $20 million over the last two years citywide, for council members and city administrators to come up with another $6 million, it's a pretty big hit right now," said Darrin Witt, the president of the Huntington Beach Firefighter's Assn.

Cook said she opposed the measure because she believed spending the entire 15% on immediate needs would prevent the city from undertaking large-scale projects like Pier Plaza or the Sports Complex, which she called essential to the city's economy and tourism, among other reasons.

She also called the council members who supported Measure O "spineless," noting that all of them would be off the dais by the time the measure took effect.

"The reason they won't do it [before 2017] is because the public will say, 'No, we want those services. We don't want you to close the library,'" Cook said.

Other former city leaders are staunchly behind the measure. The Committee for Yes on Measure O, which includes former mayors Ralph Bauer and Shirley Dettloff, has created a website to drum up support for the measure. Among its features is a contest in which residents can submit photos or videos of decaying infrastructure around town, with $100 going to the person who sends in the most decrepit image.

Dettloff, who disagrees that passing Measure O would negatively affect public safety, said fixing infrastructure would have many benefits for Huntington Beach, including higher property values and more new businesses moving in.

"To me, the premise is so simple," she said. "Infrastructure has got to be one of the main priorities."

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