Proposed Costa Mesa firefighters contract is praised as ‘fair’ but panned as too costly

A proposed new contract for the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn. was met with both praise and concern during a City Council public hearing Tuesday night.

Supporters called the tentative pact a reasonable, financially sensible agreement that would help Costa Mesa retain and attract high-quality firefighters.

But other speakers worried about its costs or whether it would affect the city’s unfunded pension liability.

As proposed, the contract would run through June 30, 2021.

It outlines four 3% pay raises for the association’s 73 members between now and Jan. 1, 2019.

Those employees also would see the amount they contribute toward their pensions gradually increase from 5% of their salaries to 14%.

Council members voted unanimously to schedule the contract for a second hearing, and possible adoption, on Oct. 17.

Under the pact, the city would raise its monthly health insurance contribution for association members from $556 to $2,119. The maximum amount an employee could receive in cash if he or she opts out of health insurance would be $1,060 per month, according to the contract.

Firefighters would get reduced annual vacation accruals and higher tuition reimbursement — $1,500 per fiscal year instead of $1,250.

The contract also stipulates that sick leave and vacation would no longer count as hours worked for calculating overtime.

“I believe we have reached an agreement that is both fair for our city and fair for our firefighters on the front lines,” association President Rob Gagne said in a statement Tuesday night. “The Costa Mesa firefighters have been consistent partners for years in the effort to address challenging financial situations facing the city, especially during the economic downturn, and continue to do so with this contract.”

Mayor Katrina Foley praised the agreed-to overtime changes — which she said would reduce the city’s costs — and said it’s vital that Costa Mesa provide quality health benefits for firefighters.

In terms of pensions, Foley said she’s “not aware of any other fire department that’s contributing this much, maybe even in the state of California.”

Council members Allan Mansoor and Jim Righeimer, however, said they’re concerned about the contract’s financial ramifications, including whether it might affect Costa Mesa’s unfunded pension liability — most recently calculated at $289 million.

Mansoor said he appreciates the work of first responders and understands the danger they put themselves in. But the contract needs to be looked at through a fiscal lens, he added.

“The situation we are in is unsustainable,” he said. “It is going to sink us financially. I don’t know how else to say that to everyone.”

City officials say the tentative contract is expected to result in a total cost increase for the city of about $4.95 million.

Councilman John Stephens, who participated in the meeting via teleconference from Vermont, said getting the association to agree to contribute 14% of salaries toward pensions is “a substantial concession.”

“We were very careful to not increase our underfunded pension liability as a result of this contract,” he said.

If approved, this would be the fourth employee contract the council has OKd this year, joining pacts with city executives and division managers, the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. and the Costa Mesa Fire Management Assn.

Last year, the council approved a new contract with the Costa Mesa Police Assn.

Fireworks ordinance change approved

Also on Tuesday, council members unanimously approved an ordinance amending the municipal code to explicitly prohibit possession of illegal fireworks.

Police Department officials have said the change will allow Costa Mesa officers to issue citations for such offenses under the municipal code and handle prosecutions locally.

Costa Mesa already prohibits the discharge, sale or attempted sale of illegal fireworks such as aerial shells, bottle rockets, cherry bombs and firecrackers.

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