Irvine Passes ‘Best Budget’; Great Park’s Prospects Dim

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The Irvine City Council passed a $139-million 2012-13 budget Tuesday that, among other things, replenishes a rainy-day reserve that had been depleted in recent years and indicates the city has weathered the Great Recession.

“This is the best budget I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been on City Council,” said Mayor Sukhee Kang.

The same cannot be said for the Orange County Great Park. The state Department of Finance recently denied a $1.4-billion funding stream that was considered vital to the 1,300-acre city park’s construction.

Nonetheless, city leaders painted a bright financial picture for the park, insisting that the massive funding source is not yet lost but is merely tied up in a lawsuit. They also said that progress is being made, pointing specifically to a $22-million construction project featuring lighted soccer fields, a series of ponds and walkable timeline. Construction is expected to begin within 30 days, said park CEO Mike Ellzey.

The $1.4 billion was lost when Gov. Jerry Brown succeeded in his bid last year to ax redevelopment agencies. The development of the park, a redevelopment area created after the El Toro Marine base was shuttered, was predicated on increased property taxes coming from thousands of homes planned around the park.

After the decision on redevelopment agencies, the city sought a temporary restraining order to stop the state from denying $1.33 million in scheduled tax revenue to the city through December, city officials said. A judge rejected the restraining order, saying that it wouldn’t cause undue harm to the city because the funds could be recaptured, according to Assistant City Attorney Jeff Melching.

“The $1.4 billion is not lost nor is the $1.33 million. It’s the subject of ongoing litigation,” Melching said.

While park leaders continue to project optimism, they’ve also made several cuts to the park budget. The compensation for the park’s controversial public relations firm Forde & Mollrich, for example, was cut from $100,000 per- month to $50,000.

The firm’s reimbursable printing costs, however, remained at $25,000 per month, an amount that Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway questioned. He asked Ellzey when was the last time the firm had sent a publication to city residents.

Ellzey said he couldn’t recall but acknowledged that a publication hadn’t been sent within the calendar year. Yet he insisted that the Forde & Mollrich’s printing costs tracked between $20,000 and $22,000 monthly.

The park’s budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year is not large. Just over $8 million of its $16 million in operating revenue comes from “earned revenues,” which are funds gained by the park through leases and the Great Park Neighborhoods development agreement with Heritage Fields El Toro. The rest comes from another agreement with the developer.

— ADAM ELMAHREK

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