Fire, Flood and Plague Can’t Topple Malibu Budget

Malibu City Council Members and city staff discuss business during the city’s second-ever entirely remote meeting, held Monday during the ongoing COVID-19 emergency.

Mere weeks after dire predictions of a budget shortfall after revenue fell by millions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, City Manager Reva Feldman, during the most recent virtual city council meeting on Monday, April 27, announced the preliminary fiscal year 2020-21 budget currently predicted a five-digit deficit, although city staff was still working to break even.

“Certainly, some belt tightening went on, but I think for this very moment in time, we can breathe a little bit,” Feldman told council. This was the third fiscal year in a row to be hard hit, with the 2019-20 budget reeling following the Woolsey Fire of November 2018 and proceeding heavy rain.

The proposed budget, which will be discussed during a meeting on Wednesday, April 29, (and written about in the May 7 print edition of The Malibu Times) predicts a total of $54.51 million in revenue and $62.71 million in expenses, with a general fund annual revenue of $30.13 million and general fund annual expenditures for ongoing city operations of $30.16 million. 

One area of the budget targeted by city staff as a possible increased revenue stream was the fee associated with launching an appeal to the Malibu Planning Department.

According to information provided by staff, the current fee of $500 represents pennies on the dollar when it comes to the average cost such appeals incur on the city—the process runs up an average of 50 hours of staff time per appeal which, at a staff rate of $175 per hour, costs the city $8,750. That means—as council members emphasized during the Monday hearing—each appeal costs taxpayers $8,250. Notably, the fee prior to 2011 stood at “25 percent of the original fee with a $1,000 minimum”; however, Council Member Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, who was then on his first term on council, recalled that was reduced following a public outcry over the high cost.

Several residents—including two planning commissioners—called in to decry the city’s plan to raise fees “over 1,650 percent.” However, Assistant City Manager Lisa Soghor insisted, that was never the intention.

“In no way was staff recommending that the fee should be set to $8,000,” Soghor responded after the flurry of public comments. 

Council members weighed in that they did not believe the $8,750 number was a staff suggestion, either—nor would that be reasonable.

“I don’t think a lot of people in town would appreciate that,” Wagner said, with Council Member Rick Mullen adding that it was “very important that the common man” have the ability to weigh in without a financial barrier.

“If this could go up even a few hundred dollars, it would help offset the cost to us, so I think something like 750, something like that, seems like it would help offset our cost,” Mayor Karen Farrer suggested. Council voted unanimously, 5-0, to move forward with that suggestion.