Manpower shortage stymies ‘wish list’ projects in Del Mar

An onrush of major projects that have unexpectedly drained available funding and manpower — compounded by vacancies atop three of the city’s six departments — is forcing Del Mar to hold off on more than a dozen wish-list projects, many of which have been talked about for years.

The predicament came to light during a sobering city council session on Dec. 18 that updated a lineup of projects that the council has been evaluating for the fiscal year that runs through June 30. Over the past several months, the council had ranked and re-prioritized roughly 50 projects, dividing them up into three categories of descending importance: 18 capital projects that need to see work in the next six months, another 20 projects to which the city is committed to for various reasons and, lastly, 14 discretionary projects that councilmembers have shown interest in starting this fiscal year.

Ahead of the Dec. 18 meeting, Clement Brown, the city’s environmental sustainability and special projects manager, analyzed each department’s expected workload and available staffing to finish the massive city hall construction and relocation, followed by the lineup of 50 projects.

His finding: The full schedule would require more than 11,000 hours of work over the next six months, for which city staff can handle barely 6,300.

The city manager’s office would be the first bottleneck, running out of capacity on the eighth project. Public Works would hit its breaking point after the 14th project, extending the city’s recycled water infrastructure to the northern end of Camino del Mar. The city’s planning department should be able to do its share of work on 36 projects, and probably three more after a few tweaks to extend resources.

But short of hiring a cadre of pricey consultants, Brown found, Del Mar won’t be able this fiscal year to take on the discretionary projects.

“Quite frankly, the results show that there’s just an overall lack of capacity within the city across all departments to work on a number of special projects that are important to you,” Brown told the council.

Topping the list of discretionary projects: an amendment to the Del Mar fairgrounds’ coastal permit and launching a campaign to lobby for and begin designing a pedestrian rail crossing somewhere on the city’s southern bluffs. The council had also wanted to continue analyzing Del Mar’s law enforcement options; write ordinances to restrict wood-burning fireplaces and temporary storage units; revise the North Commercial zone (around Jimmy Durante Boulevard); digitize all city records; and develop the zero-waste program spelled out in the city’s Climate Action Plan. Taken together, the discretionary projects would require nearly 3,000 hours of staff time.

Three overarching factors have fed into the manpower shortage, Brown said, beginning with the thousands of hours spent to plan and build the $17 million city hall and civic center on course to open on Camino del Mar in roughly four months. Staffers expected to consume nearly 2,000 hours across all departments in the run-up to its opening. City staff have also expended considerable resources to plan the array of infrastructural and aesthetic improvements laid out in the Downtown Streetscape project, a $4.8 million facelift to Camino del Mar between 9th and 15th streets. Streetscape will require 725 hours over the next six months to launch its first phase.

In addition to the new city hall, Del Mar expects to devote more than 3,100 hours toward 18 capital projects over the next six months, including preparations for Streetscape’s first phase, roadway and sidewalk improvements to Camino del Mar from Carmel Valley to 4th Street, and lighting upgrades at Powerhouse Park and Seagrove Park.

Another 1,900 hours will go toward 20 non-capital projects before June 30, a list that includes a feasibility study and implementation plan to bury utility lines city-wide, Del Mar’s long-delayed affordable housing element, the next phase of the city’s sea-level rise planning, the Shores Park master plan, launching the city’s public art program and ethics reforms ahead of the city’s 2018 election.

The second overarching factor, Brown said, is that Del Mar has faced a “significant and unexpected” surge in day-to-day demands to recruit and train new employees and respond to an unprecedented number of lawsuits, damage claims and public records requests — a trend that shows no sign of relenting.

Further complicating Del Mar’s conundrum, the top position for three of the city’s six departments remain vacant since last year’s departure of the director of Public Works, the August firing of longtime Community Services Director Pat Vergne amid a firestorm of controversy, and the departure of the city’s finance director shortly after.

A far greater drain, Brown said, has come from three large-scale development projects moving through the city’s review process: the Garden Del Mar proposal downtown, the residential Watermark project on Jimmy Durante, and the 16-acre luxury resort proposed for Del Mar’s northern bluff. When the council started reorganizing its roster of projects last year, officials didn’t yet know that all three projects would be moving forward during this budget cycle.

“In some cases, these are the biggest projects the town’s ever seen and clearly some of the biggest projects we’ve seen in the past 30 years,” said City Manager Scott Huth. “So it’s a completely different dynamic than what we were envisioning when we originally came up with the chart.”

Huth and Brown recommended hiring a retired project manager to finish out the fiscal year, costing $50,000 while adding 900 hours of capacity. That position will focus first on the city’s fees and rate structure for water, waste water and stormwater, all of which are in urgent need of updating, Huth said. What’s left of those 900 hours can then be spread out as needed.

It remains unclear whether the added manpower will enable the planning department to take on the 250 hours it will need to handle the California Coastal Commission’s review of Del Mar’s controversial ordinance on short-term rentals, or the 60 hours needed to study and draft a seawall mitigation fee.

What is certain is that city staff will not have capacity for any of the discretionary projects in the next six months. Doing so would require spending as much as $150,000 on consultants, Brown said. The council shied away from such an expenditure, opting instead — after more than an hour of wrangling — to hire the retired project manager. The council also agreed to begin implementing Tier 1 of California’s new “green” building codes for commercial properties during this fiscal year. The 175 hours needed to do so means delaying the creation of a database for the city’s recently overhauled architectural review process.

“We’re trying to feed 12 people with soup for five, so some painful decisions [need to be made] and this probably is one of them,” said Mayor Dwight Worden.

The unprecedented confluence of strains on city staff is a phenomenon Huth doesn’t expect to see again for a long time. Once city hall is built and moved into, staff capacity is expected to return to normal levels in time for the fiscal year that begins July 1— a likelihood that Worden cautions is far from certain.

“History tells us no matter how much planning we do, some thing or things are going to happen in 2018 that we didn’t anticipate that are going to take a lot of time effort and money,” he said in an interview.

In the meantime, councilmembers are vowing to pick up as much of the load as they can for the most important of the postponed projects, particularly in working with the North County Transit District and the California Public Utilities Commission to get the ball rolling on pedestrian rail crossings, which is already shaping up to be a decade-long, $80 million effort. Worden and Councilman Terry Sinnott are in the early stages of putting together an informal working group on the rail crossing and the longer-term proposal to move the tracks off Del Mar’s bluffs altogether. Worden also has faith that members of Del Mar’s various advisory committees will put in yeoman’s work.

“Don’t be in total despair,” Worden said. “We may be able to feed eight people with that stew once we stir in our own stuff.”