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Daily Pilot

Commentary: Let's correct civic center misconceptions

By Edward Selich

11:45 AM PST, January 8, 2013

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Re. "Mailbag: CalPERS, council should split Taj Mahal costs,": Daily Pilot reader M. D. Moore is the latest to use the city and the Newport Beach Civic Center as a punching bag, but his Jan. 3 letter was misleading. As such, I feel compelled to address several comments made in the letter.

It was the City Council, not the city staff, that unanimously approved the design and construction of the new Civic Center. Before that approval, there were more than 45 public meetings from the start to the end of that planning process. While I understand that most residents are busy and couldn't participate in those meetings, many residents did, and they helped steer the council's decision. (I actually went from opposing to embracing the project after hours upon hours of study and public testimony.) And the council's decision, made in a public meeting in 2009, was to take advantage of the low-bid environment and build a true civic center, not just a city hall. This was our one chance to build a central gathering place for our community at great pricing — we took it.

Moore keeps comparing apples to oranges. The cost of the Civic Center project today is for the entire project – the 12-plus acres of park, the new emergency preparedness center, the library expansion, the pedestrian bridge, the city hall and council chambers, the parking structure, the storm water protection devices, grading, design, insurance, contingency, construction management, the environmental documents, inspections and more. If we were building just the city hall building, the construction cost would be close to what the Measure B proponents estimated back in 2008. But that was an estimate for one building, not a civic center.

As for our city organization, Newport Beach's workforce is smaller today than it was just three years ago. We're down from 833 full-time positions to about 750 — and getting smaller. Don't be fooled by the "we have more employees than other cities" canard that Mr. Moore used. It's misleading. If you lived in Laguna Niguel, you'd still have a bunch of municipal employees your taxes and fees would fund, but they don't appear on that city's books. They work for special districts, in a fire agency, and at the County of Orange. They still exist, they still have salaries and pensions, and they are still paid for with tax dollars. Even as Newport Beach's staff gets smaller, there needs to be room at a City Hall for the contract employees who might serve our residents and businesses. If you question that, check out the Orange County Sheriff's space at Laguna Niguel's new City Hall.

Mr. Moore also ignored the geography and visitor-serving nature of our town, two features that also make it difficult to directly compare us with cities like Tustin or Orange or even our coastal neighbors. Newport Beach has a bay that divides it (that changes response times, especially for fire/EMS), a harbor, and ocean and bay beaches. Other coastal cities have one or two of those features, but not all of them. We also have millions of visitors year round.

Per capita staffing comparisons don't include the 100,000 people who flock to Newport on a hot summer day. Even if it were possible to upsize and downsize public safety and maintenance staffing by season, doing so is unwise and ignores the taxes that visitors pay (sales tax, hotel bed tax, more).

I do agree with the writer's assertion that Newport Beach's identity is tied to its beaches and harbor. That's why the council has spent significantly more money on the harbor during the past three years.

What the writer likely doesn't realize is that throughout the recession, while we've reduced our staff size and cut costs in a number of areas, Newport Beach has spent more on infrastructure and maintenance. We don't want our city to be like others that cut back on road repair, median maintenance, and other things that keep our property values high. We've also increased the city's reserves to more than $90 million.

Newport Beach is doing more with fewer employees. We were one of the first cities in California to address PERS pension issues. We have money set aside to meet future costs and to help rebuild should a natural disaster occur, and we took advantage of the downturn in the construction industry to build a civic center that will be a community home — not just an office building — serving the citizens of Newport Beach for the next 100 years.

Those are the facts and we've got hundreds of public records to prove it. Or, you can just ask me, any of the council members, the city manager or other staff who have continued to serve us well during some of the most challenging years in our city's history.

EDWARD SELICH is a member of the Newport Beach City Council.