Malibu May Wake Rudely From Its California Dream

Focus moves from Gidget to budget as city is left on the brink by four major natural disasters

Admit it.

When you were California dreamin' on any one of a hundred miserable winter's days, you wished you were here - maybe basking in the tan-friendly glow of a perpetual afternoon sun, or hanging 10 on a surfboard dancing along the crystal fringe of a sapphire wave.

But if Malibu is, as some say, a state of mind, then the City of Malibu has all too frequently been a state of emergency.

Since its incorporation six years ago, the city has suffered four major natural disasters - including a 1993 brush fire that destroyed 270 houses. Coping with all this has cost Malibu nearly $15 million, says City Manager Harry Peacock, pushing its reserves below the 5 percent of annual budget considered a minimum emergency cushion for California cities.

The city that holds the homes of resident celebrities like Johnny Carson and Barbra Streisand is not bankrupt, says city councilman John Harlow. "But call me after the winter season. If we have another half-million-dollar hit, I would say we're almost on the verge, [unless] the Federal Emergency Management Agency monies come in between now and the end of June."

While much of the money the city fronted for disaster recovery has been reimbursed by the state and federal governments, Malibu is still owed some $3.1 million - and given changing federal policies, city officials aren't expecting, realistically, much more than $2.5 million.

Some residents, like city councilman and former Mayor Walt Keller, think Malibu will do just fine as it is. Others, however, see a need for more money, and even Mr. Keller says he'd "like to see a little bit of income from the people who come out here and use our roads and beaches."

Indeed, 125,000 people (10 times Malibu's population) fleeing triple-digit inland temperatures crowded onto city beaches recently, and 55,000 cars a day clog the city's main traffic artery, Pacific Coast Highway.

But increasing city revenue in California isn't easy. Proposition 13 long ago limited local governments' ability to raise money through property taxes, and Proposition 218 requires an election and a two-thirds favorable vote to approve bond issues.

Although Malibu does have other income sources, Mr. Peacock says, it receives relatively little money from property taxes and sales taxes collected here. The state even keeps 80 percent of fines from tickets written by deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department - which Malibu contracts for law-enforcement services.

Competing with the need to bolster the city's emergency reserve are equally pressing needs such as maintaining and upgrading roads and storm drains - a bill may eventually reach $20 million. Complicating the financial picture further is Malibu's unusual layout - 27 miles long and one mile wide, with much of its residential area in the hills and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains. That layout limits access and increases cost of materials delivery, says Peacock.

This is leading some officials and residents to consider more cost cutting, as well as a package of tax or assessment proposals to be voted on in April. Yet one option that might put more cash in city coffers - increasing the tax base through commercial development - is not readily embraced.

Despite Malibu's California-good-life mystique - which others have used to sell everything from Barbie Dolls to Chevrolets - "development" might as well be a four-letter word. No wonder. In a place where 30-foot-wide slices of sandside property in Malibu's most exclusive areas can cost about $3 million, bringing in a flood of commercial projects isn't exactly high on most residents' agenda.

LONG before they voted for cityhood, Malibu residents fought off plans for a freeway, a nuclear power plant scheduled to be built on top of a fault, and a series of county-backed sewer plans that would have opened the area to greater commercial exploitation and higher-density, multi-unit housing.

Since incorporation, the city has spent more than $3 million fighting development-driven lawsuits, says City Attorney Christi Hogin.

"The residents here are custodians of some of the most beautiful, pristine land [in southern California], and they've been reluctant to allow unchallenged growth," she says.

Now citizens are weighing a plan that would call for more commercial space in the civic center area. The struggle to balance revenue with quality of life is fundamental to Malibu's sense of itself. "Will new commercial development bring new revenue to the city?" asks city planning commissioner Tom Hasse. "Yes, but it depends on the type of development and the costs associated with it."

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