Coastal Commission prepares for budget cuts

As the state sharpens its budget knife, an agency directly under the blade is the California Coastal Commission, the guardian of 1,100 miles of coastline and an entity that has enflamed passions like few other government offices in California.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier proposed a 10 percent budget cut in the bureaucracy. The coastal commission has sent layoff notices to 46 staff members — notices that are required by law — and is preparing for the possibility of cuts, although when and just how deep are not clear. A staff-prepared analysis of the agency's finances said there was a possibility of 19 to 25 layoffs at the 125-member staff, which has withered over the years from about 200 positions.

"Budget cuts at these levels will devastate the Coastal Commission and critically impair implementation of the Coastal Act. The commission will not be able to work with local governments on LCP (Local Coastal Plan) issues…," Susan Hansch, the commission's budget expert and chief deputy director, wrote in a July 8 memo to the commission's employees.

"Needless to say, beginning the layoff process and notifying 46 employees (34 percent of the staff) that they are at real risk of layoff has been disruptive, painful and time-consuming," she added. "The loss of General Fund staff positions has made it increasingly difficult to address the workload to meet the mandates of the Coastal Act."

Even if the governor's 10 percent budget cut ultimately is rejected, the commission staff faces potential layoffs, Hansch noted in a separate interview.

"We're just not sure yet. We are going through every single expense we have. We've made drastic cuts in operating expenses and we are continuing to do that," she said.

For those who are critical of the commission — and there are many among those who have appeared before the 12-member panel over the years — the possibility that it will be reduced is getting decidedly mixed reviews. Some see the staff as aloof and intransigent, so driven by detail that larger, more important coastal protection policies are ignored. Its procedures are viewed as cumbersome, time-consuming and arcane, with a drawn-out, controversial appeal process that can add months, even years, to a final decision. Even on minor items, the accompanying paperwork "can be the size of a trial box," as one observer put it.

The commission is a polarizing political entity, lavished with praise one moment and angrily denounced the next. In some respects, it resembles another controversial agency that was set up not long after the Coastal Commission – the Fair Political Practices Commission. Both have worthy missions that bring them into conflict with powerful forces, both have passion and obvious dedication, both are viewed suspiciously by some in the Capitol and elsewhere. The reactions they elicit are rarely neutral, and these sometimes play out in the politics of their budgeting.

"I fully support the Coastal Act, but the coastal commission staff is out of control. At this point you can't trust them to do the smart thing with the money that they do have," said Monterey land-use consultant Arden Handshy, who has represented clients before the commission.

Others note that the commission publicly has complained about its lack of staff and the delays that face those who appear before the commission. Some believe the will use the excuse of tight budget times as a way to slow down development projects near the coast. 

"The staff will openly say that they don't have enough staff," noted Encino-based land-use attorney Fred Gaines, "and they are not shy about stating that they are lacking sufficient staff to be able to make deadlines. The Coastal Act actually includes deadlines, but without penalties."

"They routinely violate those deadlines, and in the most extreme cases the applicant has to go to court and get a court order and order them to act. They routinely do not meet the statutory deadlines," Gaines added.

Fewer staff could mean still longer delays, angering the partisans on both sides — those who see the commission as the champion of the coast and want it expanded, and those who see it as a perfect example of all-powerful government.

"We've been trying to show that this agency really needs to be bolstered, not cut," said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network. "I see the coastal commission as not just the enforcing the Coastal Act but doing the long-term planning for coastal protection. There has to be some effort put into how you increase money for the commission. This should be part of the planning."

But the argument also is made that the commission's workload is the result of its desire to get involved in a myriad of small residential projects — not developments — that already have been approved at the local level.

"I think the staff clearly cannot handle the current workload," said Carmel architect Mary Ann Schicketanz. "What needs to happen is that someone needs to step in and redesign what the commission staff is supposed to do. We believe they are not supposed to get involved in residential projects that local jurisdictions already have approved."

Personnel services account for about three-fourths of the commission's budget. The agency receives some $11.7 million from the state's General Fund — the state's main treasury of income, sales and corporation taxes — and several million from several other accounts, including the Federal Trust Account, the Environmental License Plate Fund, the Beach and Coastal Enhancement Account and other funds. The total spending blueprint is about $17.7 million.

The commission does levy some fees to buttress its funding. For example, a new filing fee increase went into effect on March 17, although projections show it may bring in $300,000 less than expected. The following month, a "federal consistency certification" fee began to be charged.

Partisans in coastal protection issues agree that the Coastal Act requires the commission to exercise rigor and diligence in its decision-making. To do that with fewer people likely would mean further delays. "They (critics) should be careful what they wish for," one consultant said.

The fundamental issue is that the commission is charged by law with protecting coastal lands, and it must make far-reaching decisions that often affect millions of dollars and the stewardship of the state's majestic landscape.

"I don't believe the system is designed to allow less scrutiny," said Andi Culbertson, an urban-planning consultant in Santa Ynez. "The time frames for processing projects have gone up and up because the staffing has gone down and down. They are barely able to make their own statutory time frames."

So what happens if the numbers of staff members get cut still more?

"There are only so many white mice and they can go only so fast. The Coastal Act is a very labor-intensive law, very evidence-intensive, and there is an awful lot of work to do," Culbertson said.

Thus far, key lawmakers in both houses agree.

Facing a $15 billion, two-year budget shortfall, they have been disposed to approve cuts in the bureaucracy, but they emphatically have balked at reducing the coastal commission's staff.  Budget subcommittees in both houses of the Legislature rejected the governor's proposal, which means commission's budget likely will remain intact when it gets through the Legislature sometime this summer for floor votes. An initial Senate floor vote, scheduled this week, was postponed indefinitely as the Schwarzenegger administration and legislative leaders — and even the state controller –
– wrangled over the governor's proposed cuts in state workers' pay.

Although surprises abound in the Capitol during budget negotiations, the only way the cuts in the commission's staff could occur now is if the budget is rejected on the floors, or if a new conference committee is appointed and the cuts are written back in. That is unlikely.

That means that the final action will come from the governor, who has the power to veto the budget line by line, and can restore his proposed cuts at will.

"It's a very challenging situation," Culbertson said. "While I respect the state's financial problems, I know hard decisions have to be made. But I look at this pragmatically. Here is an agency with a mandate and it takes all this effort to do this work. This suggests to me that further reductions are going to have very adverse consequences."

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