City reverses stance on car-crash fees

The Huntington Beach City Council this week voted to revoke the portion of a recent ordinance that sticks out-of-town drivers with the bill for emergency services if they cause a car accident in Surf City.

The council voted 4 to 1, with Councilman Keith Bohr dissenting. The section of the ordinance in dispute would have made nonresidents, the estimated 16 million people who come to Huntington Beach annually, responsible for emergency services for car accidents, car fires or vehicle extractions.

Residents were always exempt, as they pay property taxes that go toward the city's budget for services.

The council kept in place a section of the law that makes companies responsible for emergency costs for pipeline or powerline incidents.

The ordinance was originally approved last month, but Councilman Don Hansen asked to reconsider it at the Sept. 7 study session after he received "significant commentary and heart burn" on the subject.

Hansen said Monday that he hadn't considered the number of nonresident employees who commute to the city every day. That, coupled with all the negative press the city has gotten nationally for the ordinance, made him reconsider, he said.

"In hindsight now, the impact to the employees, and to our reputation, goes too far," he said.

The ordinance as a whole was expected to generate about $100,000 in revenue, but about 80% of that was from auto accidents, so the revenue projections should fall accordingly.

Councilman Devin Dwyer, the only one who originally voted against the ordinance, "I'm glad to see this come back through, and I support the idea of listening to our constituents and having to change our mind if we have to."

"It's a big step to actually admit we were wrong to something and bring it back and make changes," he added.

New city budget

In other action, the council approved closing a police substation, reductions in lifeguard services, cuts to downtown police patrols and helicopter flight time and axing the Fire Department's summer ambulance service — all in an effort to fill a $3 million budget gap.

The council approved a $301,136,077 budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, with about $3 million in cuts to services and personnel and a 10% reduction to City Council members' stipends. The city has made about $20 million in cuts over the last two years and implemented a retirement-incentive program that is projected to save the city about $11 million over the next couple of years.

Huntington Beach eliminated 137 positions, mostly made up of the 103 employees leaving by Sept. 30 through the retirement-incentive program, vacant or frozen positions. Six employees were laid off.

The Police Department, which has the largest budget, was cut by about 20 positions, including four of the 12 downtown foot-patrol positions.

The police helicopter's annual flight time was also reduced from 3,000 to 2,000 hours. The Oak View police substation is closing.

The Fire Department also had to axe its additional ambulance, which is sometimes used during the peak summer months.

Lifeguard services were slashed from 18 to 10 hours a day during non-peak times, effective Oct. 1; this will leave the beach unattended at night. Lifeguards currently monitor the beach until midnight.

Despite the cut, lifeguards will still have the option to call in part-timers to work longer hours when there is good weather and a large number of beachgoers, Community Services Director Jim Engle has said.

The city imposed similar cuts in 2002-03 until it could afford to reinstate the normal lifeguard hours, Engle said.

Costco gets the green light

In other council news, Huntington Beach approved a 154,113-square-foot store Costco store to be built alongside a four-story building, with commercial use on the ground floor and 467 residential units on top.

The Costco at 7601 Edinger Ave., just west of Bella Terra and east of the Union Pacific Railroad, will have an attached tire-installation center, a 16-pump gas station and an outdoor food sales and eating area.

The project is slated to include about 30,000 square feet of mixed-use retail and restaurant usage and a five-level parking garage between the apartments and Costco for the apartment residents' use.

The project will be built on the existing Montgomery Ward and Mervyns buildings and adjacent retail space, which will be demolished.

The store is set to open in time for the the 2011 holiday season.

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