Projected budget gap grows to about $900,000

When the dust settled after Costa Mesa's study session Tuesday, the city's projected budget gap for the next fiscal year had increased from about $250,000 to about $900,000.

Yet after years of going into new fiscal years with budget deficits because of the recession, city officials remain confident they'll accomplish consecutive years of balanced budgets by the time it's due June 30.

"We are clearly in striking range of getting this done in some way," said Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer.

Righeimer and most of the council have been pushing for a marked increase in capital improvement spending from the general fund, which the city can spend at its discretion.

On top of the annual special tax revenue Costa Mesa receives from the county to maintain streets and sidewalks — about $10 million this year — city officials want to throw in another $7 million to $8 million more than has been spent in years.

Still, city CEO Tom Hatch said, "It clearly falls short of the expectations we all had to fund capital improvements in the community."

The goals come at a steep cost. Costa Mesa's shared police helicopter program was grounded last year, positions have been eliminated and departments shut down or reduced.

Despite often being the lone dissenter, Councilwoman Wendy Leece was in agreement with the majority Tuesday. Though there's competing ideologies on how fast and how deep to cut into city government to fund capital projects, there was consensus that the city needs to lay out all of its maintenance needs and prioritize them for future spending.

The council's aim is to spend about $17.7 million next fiscal year rehabilitating residential streets, parks and various needs, like upgrading city libraries and technology. Not counting the city's long-term pension and medical liabilities, city staff project there is more than $200 million worth of work to be done to Costa Mesa in the coming years.

Mayor Eric Bever was absent from Tuesday's meeting.

In other issues, the city staff said they were planning on seeking more than $14 million in grants to buttress the city's own investment in completing the master plan for Fairview Park.

Righeimer also called for the city to begin setting aside money annually in hopes that one day Costa Mesa will be able to buy any of the city's "problem" motels or hotels frequented by ex-convicts, drug addicts or sex offenders that require constant police attention. Leece welcomed the idea.

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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