Commentary: Can Costa Mesa afford $300,000 firefighters?

Last month, I wrote about the city of Costa Mesa’s pension recipient list and pointed out that the number of city employees earning six-figure pensions had increased by nearly 50% in just one year. On the heels of that news, the city has now published its employee salary information on its website for 2011, and the figures are even more alarming.

Eighty-seven employees earn more than $200,000 a year in salary and benefits. Seventeen firefighters make more than $250,000. Topping that list are two fire battalion chiefs with a whopping $347,000 per year and $313,000 per year, respectively. The top earner had nearly $110,000 in overtime alone, on top of a $75,000 pension contribution!

Two years ago, when a slim majority of the City Council voted to approve the much-maligned firefighter contract, they agreed to the union’s minimum staffing requirement. That provision allowed the fire union, not the fire chief and city manager, to dictate minimum staffing levels for our Fire Department.

As a result, that staffing decision was made based on politics and salaries, not on public safety. The results of this can be seen in our excessive firefighter salaries. We are now paying the price for these poor decisions.

The average household income in Costa Mesa is roughly $65,000 per year. To have a single firefighter making nearly double that household income simply in overtime alone is indefensible and financially reckless. The city cannot afford to pay firefighters $300,000 per year. That much seems simple.

More importantly, what will happen to these salaries when these employees retire? They will become expensive and unsustainable pension costs that will heavily burden our children and grandchildren. Our unfunded pension obligation is already $250,000 and growing. Who will pay this increasing debt? As it stands, our firefighters are only contributing 1% toward their retirement.

Yes, 1%.

Some continue to believe that we have to pay these lavish salaries in order to attract the best and brightest public safety workers. I don’t agree. Our city is not any more or less safe because we pay firefighters $300,000 per year. We don’t have fewer fires in Costa Mesa because we have 17 firefighters making $250,000 a year.

There are no easy answers to this problem and everyone must work together to find a solution. However, one simple solution is to better negotiate our union contracts on behalf of the residents and taxpayers.

In addition, we need to remove the politics from the discussion.

These are numbers. They are not an attack on the middle class, or a right-wing GOP assault on public workers. They are a wake-up call to the residents that we cannot continue down this path. Although it’s hard to say “no” to our hard-working public safety officers, we have to live within our means and reign in these salaries and benefits. If we don’t, these costs are only going to escalate, and our problems are only going to get worse.

COLIN MCCARTHY is president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn.