Newport council candidates weigh in on development, pensions and more at forum

Development proposals, the city’s unfunded pension liability and the idea of eliminating the city’s business license tax were among the topics of discussion Tuesday during the first Newport Beach City Council candidate forum of the 2016 election season.

The morning forum, presented by the Chamber of Commerce, was moderated by Lucy Dunn, president of the Orange County Business Council.

“There are some very important issues facing the city,” said chamber President Steve Rosansky. “We have a chance to pick the future we think is best for Newport Beach.”

Newport voters will decide Nov. 8 who should fill three available seats on the City Council.

Businessman and community activist Mike Glenn, businessman Lee Lowrey and retired educator Jeff Herdman are vying for the District 5 seat, which represents Balboa Island, Harbor Island, the Fashion Island area and a portion of Big Canyon. Councilman Ed Selich, who currently represents District 5, is termed out this year.

Attorney and city Finance Committee member Will O’Neill, attorney Phil Greer and former Planning Commissioner Fred Ameri are running for the District 7 seat, which represents Newport Coast and Newport Ridge. Councilman Keith Curry, who currently represents the area, also is termed out.

Harbor Commissioner Brad Avery is running for the District 2 seat, which represents Newport Heights and Newport Crest. Law student Shelley Henderson has announced her intent to run but has not yet submitted paperwork to make it official. Henderson did not attend the forum. The district’s current council member, Tony Petros, is not running for reelection.

Candidates agreed that alleviating traffic congestion and paying down the city’s $276-million unfunded pension liability will remain two of Newport Beach’s biggest hurdles in the next several decades.

For the past several years, the city has used a portion of surplus money to accelerate payments to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System in an effort to more quickly pay down the pension debt and save money on interest payments.

“I think what the city is doing is the fiscally responsible thing,” Greer said. “I would continue the course that we’re on because it’s working.”

Most candidates agreed that the city has made significant strides and should continue to look at ways to ramp up payments and pay down the debt faster.

Glenn suggested reducing city staff by about 20% over 10 years through attrition to help mitigate the cost of retirement.

Lowrey suggested the possibility of investing outside the state system, which he said has proved to be a “lousy investment fund.”

Dunn sought the opinion of each candidate about the proposed development of homes, retail space and a hotel on Banning Ranch and plans to develop residential properties in Newport Center.

O’Neill was hesitant to speak in specific terms about projects being proposed because legal precedent could bar him from voting on them, if he is elected. However, he said he supports an additional residential element in Newport Center and believes the Banning Ranch project should be approved by the California Coastal Commission in September. The Newport Beach City Council has already OKd it.

Ameri said that while he believes the proposed Banning Ranch development is too large, the property owner has the right to build something on the land. Ameri added that he opposes Museum House — a proposal to add 100 residential units in a 25-story tower on the current site of the Orange County Museum of Art — because of its possible impact on traffic.

Avery said he wishes the Banning Ranch project were smaller but he wouldn’t be against the Coastal Commission approving it. He said he supports slow growth, implementing design and view corridors and receiving compensation from developers for large projects.

“I’ve lived here all my life and it’s hard for me to see the infill and growth ... but at the same time, it’s the world we live in,” Avery said.

Glenn and Lowrey indicated they favor the Banning Ranch project because it would clean up the land and open it for public use.

Glenn said both Museum House and the 150 Newport Center project — a proposal to build 45 residential units in a six-story building at the site of the Beacon Bay Auto Wash — should be subject to voter approval.

Herdman said he is in favor of projects that are consistent with the city’s general plan, which serves as a blueprint for local development.

Dunn asked the candidates for their thoughts on a proposal supported by some on the current City Council to eliminate the city’s business license tax, which could result in a $4-million annual revenue loss for the city.

O’Neill said he would be interested in looking at it after the city pays down its pension obligations.

Avery agreed, saying he would consider it if it can be done in a way that makes financial sense for the city.

Lowrey advocated phasing out the tax, as did Glenn.

Herdman, Ameri and Greer said they likely would be against such a proposal if they are elected.

“I’m not in favor of reducing any kind of revenue for the city,” Herdman said. “We need to invest that money wisely.”

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