Commentary: City is gaining on its most serious issues

Costa Mesa has gained a lot of momentum in recent months:

•A new central library — more than triple the size of the Donald Dungan facility — is being planned for Lions Park.

•Quality housing projects are rising in the revitalized Westside, where rundown apartment complexes and junkyards once stood.

•We are recruiting an excellent class of new police officers while crime continues to drop in Costa Mesa — even after plunging 12.3% last year.

•The city has reinvested in technology, allowing for a state-of-the-art computer-aided dispatch system for police and fire, new computers and software for nearly every city employee, and a smart phone app to better connect residents with City Hall.

•We got the state to reverse its initial ruling and allow the city to be repaid for a $10.3-million redevelopment loan.

•Our investment in infrastructure can be seen in freshly paved streets and alleys throughout the city.

•And the owner of the city's largest crime-generating motel — based on number of police calls — is proposing to clear the property to make room for apartments that will feature views of the city's picturesque public golf course.

Two other significant achievements are within reach but will require continued hard work from city staff and some patience from residents.

First, we are in the middle of a fundamental restructuring of our Fire Department that will help us better reflect the realities of today's firefighters, who spend the vast majority of their time delivering emergency medical services.

Last year, the City Council unanimously passed a restructuring plan that was put forth by interim Fire Chief Tom Arnold and based largely on a proposal originally offered by the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn. As proposed, the restructuring will provide better services at significantly less cost and make our Fire Department the leader in the state.

More than a year has been spent working on the complex restructuring, and it won't be completed for at least several more months. A methodical, step-by-step process had to be followed to make sure it was done right.

For example, to allow for more nimble paramedic teams, we had to buy and outfit $1.2 million worth of ambulances. We are now working on signal preemption, which will give our firefighters literally the green light to get to scenes more quickly, before we can close Station 6, as planned.

All along the way, we have needed to make sure our planning models are accurate and our firefighters are getting to medical calls and fires as quickly — or faster — than before.

During this transitional period, we will also be studying whether to use our firefighters to transport patients to the hospital, and the council will review the report at one of its meetings. In addition, we are in the process of hiring four firefighters so we will be fully staffed when the restructuring is complete.

Apart from that project, the problems generated by some group homes in Costa Mesa will require a sustained effort and patience from city staff and residents. Like many Costa Mesans, I'm frustrated by the problem — which I view as one of the most serious facing our community — and wish that there was a swift and easy solution. But it's an extremely complex issue littered with legal minefields. For instance, group homes with six or fewer beds have to, by federal law, be treated just like ordinary family homes.

Newport Beach passed a measured ordinance to lessen the effects of group homes on residential neighborhoods and has spent the past several years and more than $3 million in legal fees defending the law, which has been declared unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Our city CEO, Tom Hatch, has pledged $10,000 to Newport Beach to help in an effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

In the meantime, the Costa Mesa City Council has passed a nuisance ordinance to help curb the bad behaviors of some group-home operators and residents. We've also assigned a full-time code enforcement officer to deal only with group homes.

Finally, I've started the Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force to fully explore every option at the city's disposal to eliminate the negative influence of some group homes in our community.

The council, city staff, residents and willing group-home operators will work together to make sure our neighborhoods maintain their residential character. The problem won't be solved overnight, but it will be solved by our determined efforts.

Please send any suggestions to Let's work together to keep Costa Mesa's momentum going.

JIM RIGHEIMER is the mayor of Costa Mesa.

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