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Shortages Hamper Coastal Panel, Says Legislative Analyst

February 25, 1990|MARK GLADSTONE and RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — The mission of the California Coastal Commission to protect the state's coastline is being hampered by a lack of money and manpower, said Elizabeth Hill, state legislative analyst.

"Our analysis indicates that the commission has significantly fewer resources to devote to regulatory activities today than it did eight years ago," Hill told the Legislature last week.

Hill, the Legislature's nonpartisan budget adviser, made the comments as part of her review of the $53.7-billion state budget proposed for the 1990-91 fiscal year by Gov. George Deukmejian, who has held office for seven of those eight years.

When adjusted for inflation, Hill said, the commission's proposed $6.2-million budget is actually $2 million less than it was in 1982-83. And she noted that the commission's work force has been cut from 170 to 110 in the last eight years, a 35% reduction.

Hill painted a grim picture of commission operations, including delays in certifying local coastal programs, a backlog of potential violations that need to be investigated and a high volume of work per staff member.

But a spokesman for Deukmejian defended the governor's tightfisted approach toward the panel.

Tom Beermann, the governor's deputy press secretary, said Deukmejian, a longtime critic of the commission, would still like to see the commission abolished.

"He believes that decisions affecting land use along the coast should be carried out by those individuals who are directly responsible to the electorate in that area," Beermann said. "And the Coastal Commission is not responsible to the electorate."

Planners have pointed to a noticeable strain on resources in the commission's office in Long Beach, the governor's hometown. It is the busiest of the commission offices and oversees coastal development in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

"Our (building) permit load has increased from about 800 five years ago to more than 1,200 a year now, at the same time the number of staff planners has been reduced from 13 to 9," said Gary Timm, a planner in the Long Beach office.

The Long Beach office has vacancies for two planners, but officials say the jobs are difficult to fill because qualified candidates, mindful of the commission's endangered status, are hesitant to apply for a job that may not last.

Such staff shortages have left the commission vulnerable to criticism, both from developers, who complain about delays in their projects being approved, and environmentalists and slow-growth advocates, who say some projects drag so long that it is difficult to sustain opposition.

In addition to personnel shortages, commission staffers complain of a lack of modern office equipment. For example, at the panel's San Francisco headquarters, workers still use a rotary phone system that frequently breaks down.

"It got to the point where I finally just bought my own touch telephone at the office," said Jack Liebster, the agency's public information officer.

Presumably, the telephone problem will be relieved, because the commission is expected to relocate its main office this spring. But the commission will have to absorb at least $200,000 annually for increased rent, "effectively resulting in another reduction in funds," Hill said.

Moreover, none of the commission's permit application files are accessible by computer, meaning that staff members and the public must search through index cards for information on any of the thousands of commission actions over the years.

Although a 1983 amendment to the state Coastal Act called for the creation of a Coastal Resource Information Center, which would be a computerized system tracking coastal development, staff members say the Legislature never allocated money for it. "Even if we could afford to develop the software, there's no money to buy hardware," said Jim Burns, the agency's chief deputy director.

Hill's report on the conditions facing the commission met with a mixed reaction from lawmakers.

Several Democrats welcomed her assessment but said until a new governor is elected in November, there is not much that can be done to boost the commission's budget.

Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles) predicted that whoever becomes governor will do a better job than Deukmejian of protecting the coastline. "I don't think anyone can do worse for the coast," Friedman said.

But Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro) maintained that the commission has exceeded the scope of its original authority: preserving access to the coast. He said many of the commission's activities, such as monitoring oil spills, were never envisioned for the panel.

"If they had stuck to what they were originally formed to do, their budget and staff is adequate," Felando said.

Steve MacElvaine of Morro Bay, a Deukmejian appointee to the panel, said the commission was set up to certify local coastal programs, then turn over permitting of projects and enforcement to local authorities. MacElvaine, saying he was speaking just for himself and not the commission, said the reason for the work backlog is that local city coastal programs have not been completed.

MacElvaine contended that much of the staff's time is occupied with dealing with permits for grading in the Santa Monica Mountains and the construction of tennis courts or decks. But, he said, if local governments had completed their own coastal plans, these decisions would usually be heard by local authorities and not the commission.

Gladstone reported from Sacramento and Russell from Santa Monica.

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