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Costa Mesa council members on Friday got together with residents to prioritize the city’s biggest issues over the next few years and how to tackle them.

Even though the public didn’t get to see anything because it wasn’t video streamed via Zoom or YouTube, didn’t get access to any key documents and often had to largely sit in silence as officials reviewed strategic plans. 

One thing was made clear by Fire Chief Dan Stefano – for the next six months the city will be completely committed to Coronavirus.

“Our world is all COVID,” he said. “That is the lion’s share of what we’re going to be faced with.”

Even the meeting facilitator hired by the city to help with the strategic meeting, Marilyn Snider, hinted to that as well. 

“If you look at how many times COVID was mentioned on the threats — both internal and external threats — this would indicate that that’s consistent with what your assessment is, management of COVID is going to be something of concern to the public,” Snider said.

But the members of the public, which couldn’t view the meeting but could only call in, never heard the rest of those threats.

Much of the priorities discussed and goals set had nothing to do with handling the pandemic. In fact, many of the goals set at yesterday’s strategic planning meeting are the same goals they set back in 2019 – including addressing housing needs, community safety and  achieving long term financial stability.

They did propose one objective towards mitigating the virus – the fire chief will regularly provide a report on managing the Coronavirus pandemic to the city council.

This left some officials with questions.

“Why is that an objective and not just a function of what you do? No offense, but it doesn’t seem like an objective,” said Councilman Don Harper. “you’re providing a report to the city council regarding management of COVID pandemic, I mean you’re doing that now, right?”

“It’s not really about notification, it’s really about doing what you’re doing on the COVID front and I would just say continuing to provide COVID related services to the community till the pandemic is over,” City Attorney Kim Barlow said.

Residents expected to engage had to listen to the more than seven hour meeting over their phones and could not attend through a zoom video conference.

“Due to Zoom application limitations, particularly for breakout sessions, the public will only be able to telephonically observe the Workshop,” read the city agenda.

No explanation was given as to why the meeting was not streamed on the city’s youtube channel as it usually does for it’s council meetings even during the pandemic with the council chambers being closed. When the Huntington Beach city council held their planning meeting earlier this month the public was allowed to watch via Zoom and had more of a discussion on the virus.

The few members of the public who did call in asked the city to focus on code and law enforcement whether it be in regards to noise ordinances, speeding or cracking down on unlicensed pot shops in the city.

The city made plans to hire consultants to develop a way to mitigate car crashes and injuries.

Finances

One part of the discussion that did shed light on the impacts of the virus was a review of the financial outlook of the city.

Last year in May the city projected a $30 million budget deficit as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic but in June adjusted and adopted a balanced budget.

Carol Molina, the city’s financial director, said that the pandemic hit Orange County three quarters into the 2019-20 fiscal year but the city was able to end the year with a positive balance of $167,000.

“We can’t get more balanced than this. We came in essentially at balance in 19-20. Knowing in that last quarter of the fiscal year, we were already experiencing the financial impact of COVID,” Molina said.

She added that they had to redo the proposed budgets for 2020-21 when pandemic hit.

There were 5% staff furloughs in all departments and 5% cuts in salaries and benefits. 14 positions were defunded across all departments. The general fund was reduced by almost $11 million.

For 2020-21, the city adopted a budget of about $136.6 million and Molina said they project to come in essentially at budget.

Molina said there is an uptick in property taxes revenue but sale taxes revenue is flat and the hotel tax revenue is continuing to decline.

For 2021-21 the city is looking at a general fund of about $145.4 million with the use of reserves. Federal funds could come to help local governments as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package.

“These are preliminary numbers only, and almost guaranteed these numbers will be changing as we go through the next few months and are able to obtain more additional information as it relates to where we are economically,” Molina said.

She added that economists are relying on the vaccine rollout on how quickly the country can get out of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Last year voters approved a ballot measure allowing retail cannabis in Costa Mesa. Molina estimates the city will bring about $3.5 million from cannabis tax revenue based on what Santa Ana made its first year allowing retail cannabis.

Housing

The city and other cities in Orange County have been pushing back against state mandated housing goals that would require Costa Mesa to zone for over 11,700 new homes in the next decade.

The city filed an appeal to the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) to reduce that amount by close to 6,000 units.  SCAG- a body of elected officials have been assigned by the state to zone for almost 1.3 million new homes in the region and oversee the allocation of the housing goals to the cities.

SCAG didn’t approve it.

So city staff and council have sent a deadline of July 15 to have the development services director report to the city council a draft of how the city plans to address their housing needs and goals.

Achievements and Weakness Since 2019

Snider, the meeting facilitator, read a list of the city’s accomplishments before she was interrupted by City Manager Lori Ann Farrell Harrison who asked for the moderator to move on for the sake of time.

When it came time for a listing of the city’s internal weaknesses and threats to the city the council members read the list to themselves leaving the public to listen to silence, unable to see the presentation slides before the council and staff.

Harrison and Snider said the list of weaknesses and strengths would be made available to the public at a later date.

City Staffing

One of the city goals is to recruit staff and they will look to hire consultants to innovate and modernize the city’s recruitment process and help with staff retention.

One weakness mentioned by Councilwoman Andrea Marr was that staff has been “completely overwhelmed all the time.”

The city also plans to start developing a training and leadership program.

“It’s like a Costa Mesa University type of setup, where we take our up and comers in the organization, or folks who have recently promoted into a supervisory position, and really develop them into the new generation of leaders,” Harrison said.

“It’s really putting together a good robust curriculum and methodology for all of the employees, but in particular focusing on supervisors and managers because we’re all in the same age group,” she added. “And will be retiring in five to 10 years. We need that new blood to come in and we need to strengthen what we’re offering currently.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated President Joe Biden proposed a $19 trillion dollar relief package. We regret the error.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam. 

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