Community Commentary: Reform police pay, pensions

I must confess at the outset of this piece that I am one of those Costa Mesa taxpayer activists. I’m one of a growing list of residents who are looking deeper at how our city spends money, peeling the layers away from the onion and not liking what we see!

I read with interest retired Officer Clay Epperson’s recent community commentary (“Council should listen to interim chief’s opinion,” June 17) regarding the police restructuring plan and his pointed criticism of our elected officials for trying to balance our budget and prioritize our spending.

Here are some facts that Epperson neglected. He retired in 2009 at the youthful age of 50. He receives a $146,000 a year lifetime pension from taxpayers, with at least a 2% annual increase for life and a lifetime of free medical benefits. He is listed as No. 4 on the California Pension Reform watchdog list for Costa Mesa for these extravagant benefits.

Based on conservative math, Epperson will receive nearly $5 million in just taxpayer-funded retirement. Few Americans make $5 million over their lifetime, much less in retirement. Epperson is the poster child for the pension reform movement that voters are vocally demanding. If his unsustainable retirement package doesn’t shock and dismay you, I don’t know what will.

But I digress. In his article, Epperson chides our city leaders for pursuing a police restructuring plan that reduces the number of sworn officers, scales back the sworn police presence in our schools, and disbands the police helicopter program.

Here are a few facts that Epperson has wrong. Costa Mesa is not dismantling the helicopter program. They have recently negotiated a far superior contract with the city of Huntington Beach for shared patrol services (“Huntington’s helicopter will patrol Costa Mesa,” June 9).

Why would the taxpayers pay $1,800 per hour for a helicopter when they can pay $700? Chalk one up for our City Council, who approached Huntington Beach for this solution after spending four months attempting to negotiate a cooperative agreement with Newport Beach and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

On the police officers in our schools, Epperson is incorrect. Our council has agreed to keep the current staffing levels of sworn officers in our schools. Apparently, Epperson missed that part of the recent council meeting.

However, when our camcorder was stolen from our home several years ago, it always puzzled me why a sworn officer was pulled off the streets to take down a police report. Don’t we have skilled reserve officers who can handle these kinds of tasks and leave our dedicated sworn police force to keep our streets safe?

This saves money and improves the protection of our public. Can’t these reserve officers be utilized in our schools with the same outcome?

According to the union representing the police, Costa Mesa officers are the highest paid in all of Southern California. Their benefits packages are the most generous allowed under law.

Sadly, during this latest budget crunch the police union was unwilling to discuss any revisions to its union contract to address our budget deficit. Our city chief executive was forced to restructure the department to find cost savings.

I don’t blame our council for having to balance our budget. I certainly wish Epperson and his friends within the police union leadership had chosen to offer solutions to the budget process and not force the city’s hand at layoffs. It is the residents who may ultimately suffer from that inaction.

Epperson, pension reform is not something that the voters will wait to see happen at the state level. This is a problem that Sacramento cannot and will not fix. In fact, pension reform is already happening in cities all over California, including Seal Beach and Brea, where their police worked cooperatively with city leaders to arrive at reasonable compensation packages that don’t rip off taxpayers and our children, who will be saddled with this unreasonable debt.

Epperson, like all other retired city employees, deserves our thanks and gratitude for his years of service. However, Epperson has 150,000 reasons to maintain the status quo and not seek the structural change that our city needs to balance our budget and move forward. It’s time we all worked together.

COLIN MCCARTHY is president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn.