Cautious Optimism at the State of the City’s Finances

Malibu Assistant City Manager Lisa Soghor presents a slideshow about the annual budget over Zoom

For what seemed like the first time in a long time, there was unity and substantive progress out of a Malibu City Council meeting. 

At the Monday, Feb. 8 meeting, City Manager Reva Feldman and Assistant City Manager Lisa Soghor presented a budgetary outlook projecting that Malibu would finish the year with a few million dollars more in its coffers than it started with, something that seemed a miracle after last year’s forecast of a budget crisis compounded by COVID-19. Soghor said the city ended fiscal year 2019-20 with a $30.7 million undesignated general fund reserve, which is $2.4 million more than staff had predicted. Those amounts were confirmed by the city’s independent auditors, she added. In total, the city had $62.3 million in all of its accounts combined. 

“Staff continues to monitor the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on revenues, but we are cautiously optimistic about the state of the city’s finances,” Soghor said. 

Where exactly did this money come from? First, taxes, permits, fines and fees, ranging from permits to shoot movies in Malibu and permits to operate short-term rentals, to fees for running aquatic programs at the pool. Some of it is also from the city’s Woolsey settlement with Southern California Edison. Lastly, the city has more than $50 million in investments. Soghor said that new city treasurer Ruth Quinto, who was hired in November 2020, would soon be updating the city council finance subcommittee on those. 

“The budget we have is solid—not great, but solid,” Council Member Steve Uhring said. “We moved from a budget crisis to a math problem,” he later added. 

When it comes to how to allocate the surplus, the number one priority established by the council this year was making Malibu safer. 

Doug Stewart, a Malibu public safety commissioner, advocated for the city to get another car for the Volunteers on Patrol (VOP). The VOP program is made up of residents—many of whom have dedicated hundreds of unpaid hours, some in the very early morning—who pick up some of the slack where sheriff’s deputies are overextended. They help direct traffic, identify suspicious activity and issue parking tickets. 

Feldman said that the city’s conservative projections had budgeted for parking citation revenues to bring in $700,000. As of Dec. 31, such citations had brought in $723,000.

“That’s a reflection of the visitors we had here over the summer,” Feldman said, adding, “I would say a good 75 percent—if not higher—is brought in by the VOPs. So, a big shoutout and thank you to them.”

Council Member Karen Farrer said that the extra VOP car would be “money well spent.” 

Malibu will also be adding an extra sheriff’s deputy patrol at night. Council requested that that patrol start as soon as possible, with multiple members saying public safety commissioners had been stressing to them the patrol’s necessity. 

The budget also included the addition of a homeless liaison to city staff, though the council delayed a decision on that position until after the upcoming special meeting on homelessness, scheduled for later this month. Malibu also budgeted $100,000 for homeless outreach and support for this coming year. In addition, the staff report stated the recent homeless encampment cleanup in Tuna Canyon had cost $40,000 and estimated that additional cleanups through the end of the year will cost $60,000.

The city will also begin searching for a new clerk to help fill records requests, though Council Member Bruce Silverstein wondered if the city might be better off purchasing software to automate that task instead. Malibu Mayor Mikke Pierson agreed with him and said that updating much of the city’s technology would be high priority for the next budget. 

The budget was unanimously approved in a 5-0 vote. That vote, which came in the early morning hours of Tuesday, marked the first time this sitting council had gotten through its whole agenda in one meeting. 

“Motion to adjourn?” City Clerk Heather Glaser asked the group at 12:17 a.m. 

“Yes—you bet your life, yes,” Uhring responded. 


Other council actions:

Paul Grisanti was officially elected mayor pro tem. In the past, the honor has almost always gone to the highest vote-getter in the last election. This year, that was Silverstein, but his council colleagues denied him the spot in a contentious 3-2 vote last December. Silverstein voiced at the last meeting that the mayor pro tem vote was not technically valid because it had occurred before the new council members were sworn in, so council redid the vote. The same result occurred: Grisanti won, 3-2. 

Multiple public commenters complained about SMMC/MRCA head Joe Edmiston’s encroachment in the Sycamore Park neighborhood. One homeowner said that her mail had been stolen, that nonresidents had tried to break into her shed and that she had had to clean up beer bottles left over from people partying at the park’s picnic tables. Other residents spoke of how they had hired a security guard, which led to Edmiston levying thousands of dollars in fines against them. Supported by his neighbors, Howard Rudzki advocated for the city to hire legal help to fight back.

Two longtime planning commission appeals were cleared from the docket: 

  • Pierson negotiated a deal between feuding Malibu Park neighbors, both of whom were trying to rebuild from Woolsey. Though the construction of a second story may end up partially blocking another family’s ocean view, that family will retain a bit of the ocean view because Pierson got the neighbors to agree to limit the size of their foliage. 
  • Council approved a Point Dume appeal that brought into question the meaning of “neighborhood character,” making way for a Grayfox Street resident to tack on a second story they had been fighting to get for four years. When Grisanti thanked Pierson for voting with him and Farrer, instead of against him —which would have forced the city into a more legally dubious option called a minute order—Pierson said, “Don’t thank me. I’m not happy about it, to be honest. This needed to be resolved three years ago between neighbors.”