COSTA MESA — In a 4-1 vote just before midnight Tuesday, with Wendy Leece dissenting, the Costa Mesa City Council approved issuing more than 150 layoff notices to city employees.
"This has been coming on for a long time, and we're coming to a point that's rock bottom," Mayor Gary Monahan told the audience, mostly city employees who could face layoffs in six months with the council's approval.
Monahan, like many of the council members, blamed years of missteps by city staff or the council itself for leaving the city in its current budget predicament.
"The world works on a calendar and a clock," Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said. "July 1 we have a new budget. What's happened in previous councils was we'd wait until the 11th hour and push something through."
Tuesday's move could wipe out more than 150 city employees' jobs in 18 city services as part of a dramatic restructuring of a city facing skyrocketing pension costs in the coming years.
Overwhelmingly criticized as too fast and too radical by residents and city employees Tuesday night, City Council members were considering outsourcing a broad array of city services to still-undetermined private companies.
Costa Mesa, like many other cities in California, is expected to pay into the state's public pension fund, CalPERS, more this year and beyond. But when the CalPERS pension fund was flush in the early 2000s, Costa Mesa did not have to pay much to the state to cover its employees' retirement costs.
Since the recession however, CalPERS investments have dropped and cities statewide have had to make up the difference to keep it solvent. That pattern looks to continue for at least the next five years, city officials project.
Offloading hundreds of employees and their accumulating pensions by the fall would help to balance the city's budget in years to come, council members reason.
"We cant just kick the can down the road and say we're not going to do anything," Righeimer said before the vote. "If we do it today, we'd be two months into next year's budget. We can't wait until we get through the processes and everything goes out there and we're halfway through a budget."
Tuesday's move is only the first step in the process, though. The motion gives city employees a six-month notice that their job will be replaced by a private-sector employee. From now to September, council members will search for companies to replace city services and hire them.
If council members don't find what they're looking for, the city can rescind its layoff notices at any time, according to the City Council staff report.
Earlier in the meeting,, Righeimer met stiff resistance from residents and Councilwoman Wendy Leece in his proposal to explore if the city's contracted ambulance should have paramedics on staff, too.
The logic, according to Righeimer, was that more paramedics at the scene of a medical emergency the better, and they wouldn't replace Costa Mesa firefighter paramedics.
"All we're doing at this point is asking for the medical director of Orange County EMS to let us know if it even makes any feasible sense to evaluate a private-provider paramedic to increase capacity," said Monahan.
Fire Department EMS Coordinator Larry Grihalva warned the city that too many paramedics could actually be harmful because they would each get less time in the field performing the complex procedures they're trained for.
Righeimer's proposal passed 4-1 with Leece dissenting, but not before she accused him of having a larger plan.
"I think there's an ultimate goal of saving money and we're putting our residents at risk," she said.