Manpower shortage looms over Del Mar’s plans for upcoming fiscal year

Temporary Del Mar City Hall
(Kristina Houck)

Del Mar is heading into all-important discussions of its upcoming budget under a cloud of uncertainty, having not yet resolved a manpower shortage that bogged down dozens of projects last year.

The Del Mar City Council this week took its first steps in paring down and deferring projects from a list of roughly 80 on the horizon. More than half of those are capital projects already underway or projects the city is otherwise committed to begin during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Taken together, the 45 capital and committed projects will require more than 15,000 hours of staff time through June 30, 2019. The city’s existing personnel scheme has capacity for just over 10,000 hours.

Two of the city’s six departments are expected to run out of capacity long before they complete their part in the 45 projects: Public Works will hit its limit a quarter of the way through the list, while the planning department will last just more than halfway.

The manpower shortfall continues a trend that stymied more than a dozen wish-list projects in the second half of the current fiscal year. Officials blamed that shortage on an unprecedented surge in lawsuits, damage claims and public records requests combined with sudden vacancies atop three of six departments and the unplanned arrival of three major proposed developments—the mixed-use Garden del Mar, the Watermark project on Jimmy Durante, and the 16-acre resort on the city’s northern bluff.

While last year’s biggest endeavor—construction of Del Mar’s new city hall and civic center—will be all but done in the next two months, a slew of major projects will step in to consume the bulk of the city’s resources in the upcoming fiscal year: several hundred hours will go toward the city’s Housing Element and last year’s ordinance regulating short-term vacation rentals—which will be heard by the California Coastal Commission as early as next month—as well as nearly 1,300 hours for sea-level rise planning. Another 600 hours will go toward the redesign of Shores Park and nearly 700 hours will be chewed up by the feasibility study and request for proposals for the citywide effort to underground utility lines.

Councilmembers and city staffers pored over next year’s slate of projects during a daylong workshop on April 30, rearranging the city’s priorities ahead of budget deliberations that get underway in the coming weeks.

The council pared down some projects and deferred others entirely, then asked city staff to adjust the work plan accordingly. On the city’s new policy regulating dogs on city beaches, the council may simply tweak existing rules rather than expend hundreds of hours seeking the Coastal Commission’s approval for the policy approved last month.

“We've got bigger fish to fry than that,” Deputy Mayor Dave Druker said in an interview.

Beyond the core 45 projects, most of the 40 discretionary projects will be deferred indefinitely, including: a planning update for the fairgrounds, zoning changes in the North Commercial district, a ban on styrofoam, a ban on wood-burning fireplaces, a citywide drone policy, and possible reforms to allow a marijuana dispensary in Del Mar.

Once the adjusted work plan is presented at the end of this month or beginning of next month, the council will decide whether adding personnel will yield enough benefit to justify the cost. City staff recommend hiring a full-time associate engineer for public works (costing roughly $125,000 for one year) and a senior-level planner for the planning department (costing between $102,000 and $129,000)—salaries that are half the expense of hiring outside consultants.

“If we decide we don't want to add people, then we're going to have to turn around and cut projects,” Druker said.

A crucial piece of next year’s budget puzzle is expected to fall into place on Monday, May 7. Downtown Streetscape—a $5 million, multiphase overhaul of infrastructure and amenities along Camino del Mar from 11th Street just past 15th Street—is suddenly in flux after construction bids for the first phase came back higher than expected.

The city’s Business Support Advisory Committee (BSAC) is urging the council not to scale back on Streetscape’s array of amenities and upgrades. BSAC wants the council to fully fund the entire project at once rather than the three phases separately. And because of how late in the year it is, BSAC wants construction delayed until after the tourist season.

“Streetscape has been put off for over 20 years and the side effect of that is the increased construction cost,” Zach Groban, BSAC’s chairman, wrote in a letter to the city. “This is a shovel-ready project that is important to the residents and is vital for creating a vibrant Del Mar. We think there is a silver lining in the fact that the bids came in high; it’s a good opportunity to request more money to expand the first phase of Streetscape” to include some of the work planned for the second phase.

The council will decide at its May 7 meeting whether to rearrange Streetscape’s timeline so that construction begins in October or November, Druker said, and get some elements of Phase 2 underway.