State of the City: Life is good in Laguna

Despite a sluggish national economy — not to mention the state's budget woes — Laguna Beach seems to be in good shape, according to speeches given at the State of the City last week.

The event, put on by the Chamber of Commerce May 18 at Montage Laguna, brought out several attendees and sponsors who enjoyed a lunch, entertainment by student musicians at the high school and an entertaining video narrated by chamber President Michael Kinsman that captured Mayor Jane Egly trolling the city and making her way to the State of the City event.

"A few Fridays ago I enjoyed a Lagunan evening at Heisler Park for Sunset Serenade," Egly began her speech. "There was music at Heisler Park, art all around, the sparkly clean ocean, a full moon rising; it was magical."

She credited the city and the Business District for their work on the success of the Sunset Serenade.

"This coming year, we have almost $5 million for capital projects, including the lifeguard headquarters at Main Beach, and the Laguna Channel Capacity Improvement project, which will get water out of town more quickly."

She noted that it costs over $1 million every year to make sure the sewers are functioning, all 95 miles of them. "We want no spills," she said.

Egly also snuck in Laguna being named one of the best small coastal cities in the country by Coastal Living magazine, adding that they just didn't know it, but Laguna "is the best small coastal city."

The mayor highlighted other capital improvements in her State of the City address, such as the lights at Sawdust Festival. She also made mention of the city's good fortune in nabbing a state-of-the-art medical facility, Mission Hospital.

Egly reminded attendees not to grumble the next time they see a sidewalk repair or other infrastructure maintenance because it "keeps the city wonderful."

She credited Councilwoman Verna Rollinger with putting together a committee of experts to improve the city's reaction to disasters such as the recent flooding and mud storm in December.

"It was days before Christmas," Egly said about the most recent storm, and how it could have affected retailers who needed the business most.

"It appeared we would be under mud and water forever, but not so," Egly continued. "Immediately, city and business owners and — and Councilman Kelly Boyd too — and residents got to work and had the mess cleaned up within hours. And to help, we bagged the parking meters in the downtown to encourage people to come shop.

"Our city functions in disaster and finishes in style," Egly finished.

The trolleys have become a favorite with visitors and citizens, Egly noted, with almost 600,000 people taking them last summer.

"That means people using our trolleys are eating, shopping and enjoying our town," she said. "It's great fun and you meet people from all over the world."

As for the economy, "We think we're seeing the recession receding," she said.

Egly said the city, along with Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, is trying to promote local businesses.

Twelve restaurants have either been opened, expanded or approved, and 37 businesses have been approved or opened, according to Egly's speech.

After Egly, City Manager John Pietig spoke and started his speech with the results from the 2012 Citizen's Survey, which was sent out to 1,200 residents and resulted in opinions from 405 citizens.

He noted a 5% margin of error.

Laguna ranked third out of 360 cities nationwide, Pietig said, with the quality of life ranking eighth out of 428 cities nationwide.

Areas that improved included the school system and services to seniors, thanks to the new senior center opening in early 2009, he said.

The city's ratings in preservation are "unmatched in the nation," Pietig added.

As for the areas that need improvement, such as the amount of public parking, "I don't think anybody is too surprised about that one," he said, which garnered a few chuckles from the audience. "I would like more parking and to get around town more easily."

Recent discussions about parking and traffic issues included the topic of extending a program where traffic safety officers wave traffic in summer and extending such a service to help on heavy days of traffic and visitors.

"We'll talk about [that] in June," he said.

Pietig and Egly applauded the efforts the city is making in improving its customer service.

That includes training of staff, a new online business license renewal system, and new signage so citizens and businesses know where to go.

As for the city's draft 2012-13 budget, it's "better news than it was in several years," Pietig told the crowd. "It maintains current service levels and reserves."

The City Council gave preliminary approval a week ago to the draft budget, which pegs operations and capital projects at $65.8 million, with $47 million of that in the General Fund.

The draft budget also increases pension contributions for police and fire, reduces pension benefits for news hires, balances operating revenues and expenses, except for equipment replacement, assumes moderate revenue growth and no new impacts from the state and addresses infrastructure needs, he said.

Efforts are also underway to address transit costs, he said.

Key projects on the table or underway are the Glenneyre parking structure, Animal Shelter Creek Erosion Protection, Broadway Beautification, Coast Highway Turn Pocket at Broadway, LCR Trail from Act V to Art College and Village Entrance.

Other presentations were made by David Shissler from the Water Quality department and Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow.

Shissler, who noted that in the past 10 years the city has spent $20 million in capital improvements and is eyeing another $20 million in capital improvements, per the draft budget, for the next 20 years.

For about the past 11 years, urban structures that capture street runoff during the dry weather season have annually captured 6 tons of debris — an improvement from 13 tons in some years, according to Shissler.

Construction started on the sewer lift station in December 2011 and is estimated to be finished in September, clearing the way for the rest of the project.

Snow gave an update on the other portion of the project: a new lifeguard headquarters, the North Main Beach park and public restroom project, which is set to see construction begin after the summer.

The 3,000-square-foot headquarters will have a lift station, basement, public restrooms (removing the facility on the bluff to restore it to a more natural environment), a dispatch area, first-aid room and controls for sewer lift station and entry-level ADA-compliant restrooms. Construction is set to finish December 2013.

Wrapping up the event was Police Chief Paul Workman, who noted that crime last year was down 9%.

However, the city "did get hit a lot with property crimes," he said, but "we've got a good staff in the police department and they did an excellent job in wrapping up cases."

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