Officials discuss priorities for 2011 at retreat

Money, money, money.

The City Council discussed their goals and priorities for the coming year at their annual retreat, held this year on Saturday at the South Coast Water District offices on West Street. City officials agreed that controlling the city budget while maintaining essential services is a top priority for 2011, although not the only one.

"I am proud that to date the city has been so careful with its dollars," Mayor Pro Tem Jane Egly said. "We need to continue to do that."

Council members also listed as short-term priorities the needed repairs to flood-damaged infrastructure, and public and private assistance for disaster victims. For the long term, council members listed public safety, emergency preparedness, viable infrastructure, and the ubiquitous traffic and parking problems.

Many of the issues raised at the meeting are subsets of the budget, Egly said, including the escalating cost of city employee pensions.

"No new services will be recommended," City Manager John Pietig. "It will be a struggle to maintain existing services, and we are holding some positions vacant."

However, the city is looking for an assistant public works director with experience in municipal transportation and an assistant city manager to succeed Pietig, who held the position for almost 10 years.

The retreat concluded with the usual closed session to evaluate the city manager, a first for Pietig, who has been on the job for less than a month.

Each council member voiced particular goals and concerns at the meeting. Pietig was directed to compile a list of the concerns. The list will be on the agenda for Tuesday's council meeting, at which the council is expected to prioritize the list after public input.

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Disaster recovery and prevention

"The big gorilla in the room is can we make repairs to infrastructure that will lessen the impacts of nature?" Mayor Toni Iseman said.

Drawing down on the city's $5.8 million disaster fund must be done carefully, Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson said.

Pietig was asked to reconvene the committee that reviewed expenditures related to the 2005 Bluebird Canyon landslide.

"We have a handshake agreement with contractors, but I would like to have the work reviewed by a construction expert outside the city," Pietig said.

That was how the 2005 landslide recovery was handled.

Pearson proposed holding workshops on emergency preparedness, focusing on Laguna's enemies: fire and flood.

"It seems to me that the residents have serious concerns about emergency preparedness, and they have some ideas," Pearson said. "I am thinking we should involve the residents. Make them feel like they are being heard."

The workshops should be held sooner than later, while the disaster is fresh in everyone's minds, she said.

An annual newsletter to remind the community of ways they can be prepared would also be useful, and the city manager was asked to inform Laguna Canyon Creek-side residents about maintenance. The city and other agencies also must clear any part of the creek for which they are responsible.

Pietig was instructed to keep tabs on property owners who have debris in the creek to ensure its removal.

The council expressed interest in forming a city Emergency Preparedness Committee. Pearson recommended that an official person in put in charge.

In the short term, Councilman Kelly Boyd said ACT V must remain open for flood victims to dump debris, and waivers of over-the-counter permit fees should be extended.

Both are to be extended to the end of this month, Pietig said.

Boyd asked to have the cut-off date reviewed at the end of January.

The impact on artists who lived and worked in the canyon was of paramount importance to Iseman.

"They are the heart and soul of Laguna," Iseman said. "How do we address their plight?

"Some lost studios, their inventory, their homes and the equipment to create their art."

Pearson, who was mayor when the city recovered from the 2005 landslide, said the only thing that helps is cash.

"And the only way to raise money is fundraisers," Pearson said. "We had 14 fundraisers after the landslide, and there were also private donations."

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Public Safety

Iseman opined that undergrounding utilities on Laguna Canyon Road and major collector streets is essential to be able to get people out of town in a disaster.

"One utility pole goes down in Laguna Canyon and the road is blocked," Iseman said.

Iseman is also concerned about the mental and physical welfare of the folks most adversely affected by the Dec. 22 flood. She said mildew and mold are issues that should be addressed.

"People are so happy to get back in their homes, but they are going into really sick buildings," Iseman said. "They need to be alerted that this is really serious."

She believes the city should also be prepared for the emotional aftermath of the flood.

Ann Quilter, who was named volunteer disaster recovery coordinator for the Laguna Relief and Resource Coalition, plans to train a volunteer to represent each of the flood victims.

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Infrastructure

Councilwoman Verna Rollinger's top priority is the Village Entrance project.

"I hope that once we get through the [environmental impact report], we can come up with a project that pleases everybody," Rollinger said.

Reconstruction of the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter will proceed. Damage was not as extensive as first thought. Concrete floors and block walls were not damaged, according to reports.

The building was mucked out in four days by staff and volunteers, Pietig said, and work has begun on the renovations. Flood doors will be installed.

Suggestions to move the shelter to another location or redesign the facility would drastically increase the cost from the $669,000 already budgeted.

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Business

Boyd expressed concern for the downtown business owners, including him.

"December killed them," Boyd said. "People [customers] weren't going out in the five days of rain; Christmas fell on a weekend," not to mention the floods.

"The town was filled with looky-loos, but they couldn't find a parking space."

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