Costa Mesa Grapples With How to Budget for Infrastructure

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Costa Mesa city leaders have ambitious plans to sharply increase spending on road maintenance and other projects as soon as July.

But as budget discussions begin this month, it remains to be seen how they’ll pay for all of it.

During a presentation Tuesday starting discussions on the new budget, a leading member of the council majority criticized city staff, saying an early draft is missing much of the additional spending he’d like to see on infrastructure or “capital improvement” projects.

The city’s draft proposal calls for doubling the city’s spending on infrastructure to $20 million, but Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer felt it didn’t go far enough.

“There’s, like, 20 things that aren’t on here,” said Righeimer. “This is how it always ends up. All the capital improvement dollars go down, down, down, down, down.”

“I would like to have this come back, if it’s a $15 million deficit or 12 [million] or whatever it is. Let’s just put all the stuff in it, and then we’ll go through those items.”

City staff, meanwhile, emphasized from the beginning that they were giving a “very preliminary” picture of a budget and that they will be incorporating the council’s vision at three more budget meetings later this month.

The city’s final budget must be adopted by the start of the new fiscal year, July 1.

As it currently stands, the draft proposal falls slightly short on funding, so it’s unclear how the council majority plans to pay for the additional projects.

When a reporter asked Righeimer how further projects would be funded, city CEO Tom Hatch, who was standing beside him, replied that those discussions hadn’t yet taken place.

“We have some ideas, but we haven’t talked about those,” said Hatch.

Overall, Costa Mesa’s financial position appears to be improving significantly, with nearly $6 million in additional revenue expected next fiscal year. Total revenue is projected to exceed $100 million for the first time in five years.

City coffers will also benefit this summer from a one-time $2.4-million cash influx due to the dismantling of the police helicopter program.

The council majority wants to spend much more on infrastructure next fiscal year, including improvements to roads, alleys, sidewalks, sports fields and parks. They say the city’s infrastructure has fallen behind in recent years as spending on employee salaries and benefits increased.

Councilman Steve Mensinger cites flooding on Wallace Avenue as an example of the need to focus on road maintenance. Homes there have flooded several times in recent years, he said.

And if streets aren’t recoated at least every seven years, they must be repaved five to 10 years sooner, Mensinger said. Recoating costs the city $0.50 per square foot while completely repaving a road costs $5.50.

However, some remain unconvinced that infrastructure needs are as dire as the council majority asserts.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece agrees that the drainage problems on Wallace should be fixed but said she knows of flooding at only one other location.

“We can’t just generalize and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got millions of dollars of infrastructure’ ” needs, said Leece.

The council also plans to voluntarily pay an additional $500,000 per year toward the city’s unfunded pension liability.

Further budget discussions are scheduled for May 17, May 24 and May 29.

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