Righeimer: Budget hinges on ‘what if’

Editor’s note: This adds the last two paragraphs.

COSTA MESA —The city has no plans to buy new vehicles during the next fiscal year, but as Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer sees it, Costa Mesa must replenish its fleet replacement fund even if that means sacrificing more city jobs.

“When [an overwhelming majority] of your budget is salaries and benefits, that’s where the cuts are going to come from,” Righeimer said Wednesday. “The [council’s] job isn’t to see how many people we can keep on payroll.”

Moments after city Chief Executive Tom Hatch recommended at a Tuesday study session that the city lay off three employees to help close a projected $900,000 budget gap, Righeimer told Hatch to go back to the drawing board.

The budget wasn’t balanced after all, Righeimer said.

In his opinion, the city needed to start replenishing its vehicle replacement fund with a $1.5-million injection, temper its sales tax revenue projections by at least $400,000, and set aside an additional $1 million for budgetary contingencies.

The councilman’s move came as a surprise to some, but not all. Elected in November on a platform of pension reform, Righeimer and council member appointee-Steve Mensinger have led the charge to run Costa Mesa more like a business.

[Correction: In March, the council approved outsourcing hundreds of jobs to mitigate future pension costs. Although the city expects larger returns in sales tax revenue next year, the city faced a $3.3-million deficit because of rising costs in various city departments.]

On Tuesday, Hatch suggested a restructuring of the Police Department and more layoffs to close the last of the gap, only to have Righeimer blast it open again minutes later.

“We never know if there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. President Helen Nenadal.

“Last night you had a balanced budget and now [Righeimer] wants $2.9 million … I just don’t understand … obviously it’s not a money solution. No, it’s not a money solution if you just keep cutting employees.”

Righeimer defended his stance, saying you can’t budget on hope.

His argument hinges on “what if.”

As in, what if sales tax revenues don’t come in as expected, or what if there’s a natural disaster we’re not financially prepared for, or what if we need to replace a city vehicle unexpectedly.

Mensinger agreed with most of Righeimer’s positions, and said savings can be found through attrition and removing funded, vacant jobs, but he wavered with siding with the mayor pro tem about the vehicle replacement fund.

“I’m leaving the door open to CEO Hatch to come back with a budget that contains an adequate contingency and real cuts that will provide a balanced budget,” Mensinger said. “However, I have reservations about not supporting CEO Hatch on that issue.”

Councilwoman Wendy Leece said the budget is balanced without Righeimer’s suggestions. She pointed to a city document that lists more than two dozen vacant, but budgeted, city jobs totaling about $4 million.

There’s your contingency, she said.

“Funding a public agency is not exactly like running a business,” she added. “We’re already cut to the bone.”

It’s too early to tell where Hatch will find another $2.9 million to save, but city workers fear it will fall to them.

“If you walk through city hall, any city-owned buildings, the morale is just terrible,” Nenadal said. “I’m so proud of our employees still getting up in the morning and going to work.”