MOORLACH CAMPAIGN UPDATE — Measure P — October 22, 2018

My 2016 effort with SB 1463 gets a mention in the OC Register piece below (see MOORLACH UPDATE — SB 1463 Epilogue — October 4, 2018).

My 2018 effort with SB 1463, a similar bill with the same number (intentionally), morphed into a strategy inclusion in SB 901 (see MOORLACH UPDATE — SB 1463 Epilogue — October 4, 2018). Consequently, with a potential funding source for the city of Laguna Beach for undergrounding electric lines, which materialized after Measure P was put on the November ballot, it may not need to assess a larger sales tax at this time.

As the OC Register electronic piece had a photo of Councilman Bob Whalen, I’m including it. In the 2016 version of SB 1463, he was the mover and shaker as the bill’s sponsor and I was the author (a technical correction to the piece) when we presented the bill before various Legislative committees. We were able to get the bill to Gov. Brown’s desk without one vote in opposition, but he then vetoed it.

For my position on the 23 city and school district measures on Orange County’s various ballots, go to MOORLACH CAMPAIGN UPDATE — OC Ballot Measures — October 17, 2018).

Laguna Beach voters to decide on 1% sales tax to pay for undergrounding of power lines along city’s key evacuation routes


Laguna Beach city councilman Bob Whalen is backdropped by power lines on Thalia Street and Temple Hills. He wants the city to bury the lines to prevent fires like the recent ones in Northern California.(Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A plan by city officials to make the town safer in the event of a fire or natural disaster by burying power lines under major evacuation routes will go before voters on Nov. 6.

Measure P asks Laguna Beach residents to vote yes to authorize the city to enact a 1 percent sales tax for 25 years to fund emergency response services and fire safety measures, including moving overhead wires underground on Laguna Canyon Road and along evacuation routes. The tax is expected to raise approximately $5.6 million annually. A no vote opposes the sales tax.

A supermajority, or 66.67 percent, is required for the measure to pass.

At present, the city’s sales tax is 7.75 percent. If the measure is adopted, the sales tax rate would increase to 8.75 percent.

A 2016 study by Visit Laguna Beach shows that visitors paid more than $3.8 million in sales tax, representing 67 percent of the sales tax collected by the city that year. City officials estimate that 6.5 million visitors come to the city each year and would bear the brunt of the the added sales tax.

Measure P is endorsed by Laguna Beach police Chief Laura Farinella and Laguna Beach Fire Chief Mike Garcia. Opponents include Carolyn Cavecche, CEO/president of the Orange County Taxpayers Association and David Rubel, president of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and Civic Association.

In February, the City Council voted to move forward with efforts to bury the power lines following a community survey that showed support for the effort. The survey also showed almost all residents understand the threat of wildfire and the associated dangers of overhead power lines. The City Council, at that time, reviewed three options.

About 70 percent of survey respondents favored a one-cent increase in the city’s sales tax, 56 percent stated they would approve a bond measure and 58 percent preferred a general purpose sales tax.

City officials say it will cost at least $90 million to bury lines along Laguna Canyon Road, one of the city’s three entrance and exit points, and $45 million on 11 evacuation routes identified throughout the town, at a cost of $1,000 per foot. Citywide, there are 128,000 feet of overhead utilities, and about 21,000 feet are along the evacuation routes.

The city is already spending $2.5 million from existing city revenues to bury the utilities but that only covers a third of the cost, said City Councilman Bob Whalen, who in 2016 spearheaded efforts with state lawmakers to try to get the utility companies to step up with funding.

When the city had no success with the utilities, Whalen and others from the city, including then-Fire Chief Jeff LaTenderesse, took the issue to Sacramento. Senate Bill 1463 sponsored by Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, was later vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016.

Efforts to bury the overhead lines and transponders have been a focus in recent years. Overhead utility lines have fallen during natural disasters and have blocked roadways, preventing emergency crews access to neighborhoods and hindering evacuations.

Downed poles caused fires in Laguna Beach in September 2007, February 2011, September 2012 and in July 2015. In 10 years, there have been more than 58 auto accidents that have downed utility wires and resulted in the closure of Laguna Canyon Road. The most recent occurred Oct. 16, when the road was closed for 17 hours.

Proponents and opponents of the tax have voiced their positions.

“We are reminded almost daily of public safety threats from utility lines and poles,” Whalen said. “Last Friday night (Oct. 12) Laguna Canyon Road was closed again, this time for almost six hours due to a car knocking over a power pole. I’m hearing every day from residents that they are voting yes on Measure P because they understand the risks that above ground power lines present.”

Jennifer Zeiter, a Laguna Beach attorney who heads up STOP (Stop Taxing Our Property), a grassroots group that opposes what it deems unnecessary taxation, calls the city’s effort to push Measure P “fearmongering.”

Random undergrounding won’t guarantee safety, she says, pointing to an already increased number of firefighters and improved technology to keep the town safe.

There are new larger water tanks, fuel modification, weed abatement, tree trimming, goats and defensible space requirements around all homes. The city also recently became the county’s first to issue its own wireless alerts and earlier this year activated the police department’s drone force that regularly monitors the city’s open space and wild land area for illegal warming fires and campsites.

“The city is running a false “fear and fire” campaign, using emotions to convince residents they will be trapped or doomed if we don’t underground utilities,” Zeiter said. “It’s disingenuous and its a money grab. The biggest fires in Laguna (in 1993 and most recently this past summer) have both been caused by humans (arson and negligence, respectively), not overhead utility poles.”

Zeiter counters the city’s claim of fire risks by saying that of the 394 fires over the past 10 years, only six were caused by utilities, and none of them major.

“That’s a 1.52 percent historical risk of fire by utilities, less than 2 percent,” she said. “It’s incredibly financially irresponsible to increase the sales tax by an effective 12.9 percent for the next 25 years and put our city in its greatest debt ever by issuing bonds in the hundreds of millions of dollars for a less than 2 percent historical risk.”

Instead of agreeing to the 1 percent sales tax increase, Zeiter and STOP say the city should pay as it goes and incentivize undergrounding in neighborhoods as has been done in the past.