Council debates budget priorities

The long-anticipated overhaul of North Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia continues to be the highest priority project, but City Council also unveiled several other priorities for its capital improvement budget at a recent meeting.

The council unanimously approved a list of recommended changes to staff’s proposed $88.6 million, six-year capital improvement plan, a suite of major projects that the city updates every two years.

While reaffirming that the North Coast Highway 101 Streetscape is the most pressing of the projects, the council also pointed to beautification efforts along El Camino Real, trail projects in Olivenhain and the creation of a savings plan to acquire open space as budget priorities.

At the same time, the council questioned the amount proposed for tree maintenance and a proposed stormwater pumping project in Leucadia, as well as the timing of proposed improvements on La Costa Avenue.

City staff will take the council’s priorities and retool the capital improvement plan and return to council in coming weeks with a final plan for their approval.

More than half of the proposed plan would go toward street maintenance and infrastructure projects, the largest of which is the city’s ongoing street overlay and maintenance, which would be $17.1 million over the six years.

Other large items include $1.4 million toward the acquisition of affordable housing, $4.25 million toward the stabilization of Beacon’s Beach starting in 2019, $2.05 million toward the completion of a roundabout at Leucadia Boulevard and Hygeia Avenue — the second phase of the roundabout project along the street between Vulcan Avenue and Interstate 5 — and $3 million toward a complete street project along Birmingham Drive.

During deliberations, Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath questioned the continued phasing of the Leucadia Streetscape — it is currently broken into four phases with Phase A fully funded and funding for Phases B and C proposed for the final two years of the six-year funding cycle.

Boerner Horvath said it would make more sense to complete as much of the project as possible in a single phase to take advantage of lower interest rates at the current time.

She initially requested that staff return with a retooled plan, but Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz and others said they wanted to wait until the council considers the certification of the project’s environmental impact report, which is scheduled for later this year.

The council also debated about whether a proposal to fund a study of a potential streetscape project on El Camino Real should be included in the capital improvement budget. Boerner Horvath objected to its inclusion, arguing that it would be bad policy and create false hopes that a project would follow shortly thereafter.

Councilman Joe Mosca, however, believed the El Camino Real corridor deserved the council’s attention during the funding cycle, and the council ultimately voted to request staff to include it in the budget.

The council also heard a report on the general fund budget, which will increase 2.9 percent to $61.6 million for 2017 and to nearly $64 million the following year.  While the projected revenue outpaces expenditures, city staff warned that expenditures are increasing as a result of increasing pension costs due in large part to downgraded financial projections from the state employee retirement system, CalPERS, as well as increased public safety costs.

City staff, however, said that the city is on solid financial footing and equipped to absorb the increase and still maintain its 80 percent funding of its multi-million pension liability.

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