COSTA MESA — The path to a balanced city budget is a windy one, and the City Council is expected to make the first of several cuts to city spending Tuesday to close a $1.4-million budget gap this year and stave off future deficits.
"We have a city that's been in denial for all too long on the realities of managing our costs," Councilman Steve Mensinger said. "We have a budget shortfall; we have to figure out how to solve these problems."
First up, the council will look to finish the job it started last year and dissolve AirBorne Law Enforcement (ABLE) services, the shared Newport-Mesa police helicopter program that saw its funding halved last fiscal year.
The move could net Costa Mesa up to $4 million over the next few years after it absorbs the program's general and equipment replacement funds, and sells off its equipment.
ABLE's maintenance fund is flush with more than $3.1 million meant to buy a new helicopter and cover other costs. The city would have to continue paying $13,300 monthly for a hangar lease at John Wayne Airport expiring in April 2012 and any other financial obligations.
Police consider the Eagle One police helicopter a "force multiplier" that assists officers on the ground in pursuits, coordinates searches and can spot hiding suspects before police are in danger. The officers in the program could be folded back into regular department operations and displace less-senior officers.
The council is expected to clear two vacant police officer positions off the books. Council members indicated at a study session Tuesday that the move was not unexpected by department leaders, who have held the two vacancies open for some time.
The reduction would save the city more than $211,000. Police Department employees have been laid off or reduced to part time over the last two years, and sworn officers are handling duties to which they weren't traditionally assigned.
Council members instructed city staff to begin discussion with other city employee groups about where they can take some vacancies off the city budget as well.
"The general sense is that we have an impending crisis and we need to take action. We need to move forward," Mensinger said.
More than 100 city employees have been laid off since the recession and more may be on the way, officials said.
City officials are looking to hire an outside consultant to help Assistant City Manager Tom Hatch identify how to "right size" the city once he takes over as city manager, Mensinger said.
While a $1.4-million budget gap may pale in comparison to previous years, the city's coffers are getting lighter and its public pension costs are only getting heavier.
Costa Mesa is contributing $15 million toward police, fire and other city employee pensions this fiscal year.
Next year, officials project, it could be more than $18 million and by the 2015-16 budget, it could be more than $25 million, depending on how much the city is required to contribute. The city's operating budget this year is a shade over $90 million.
Council members Tuesday are also expected to discuss which city programs and services could be cut or outsourced to private companies. The city is required to give city employees a six-month notice before they're laid off or their jobs are outsourced.
If You Go
What: Costa Mesa City Council meeting
Where: 77 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday