Community Commentary: Pothole or police not a real ultimatum

I keep hearing this false choice being offered around Costa Mesa. Which do you want, potholes or police officers?

Repairing Costa Mesa's neglected infrastructure, which means a whole lot more than fixing potholes, and keeping the city safe aren't mutually exclusive goals, even in these economically challenging times.

By the way, a city's infrastructure spending has a direct impact on public safety. We are only as safe as the people who we attract to our city. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani knew this when he made fixing up the Big Apple — even a broken window — a cornerstone to his initiative to make Manhattan safe again.

The bottom line: We can't have our budget ruled by fear. Especially irrational fear.

Let's look at firefighting in our city. The Costa Mesa Fire Department is one of the city's finest institutions, filled with dedicated professionals. At first glance, it would seem unlikely that it could be restructured to find meaningful efficiencies.

But the Orange County Fire Authority — another respected firefighting organization which has made a bid, at the request of our firefighters who would all be hired by OCFA, to take over our fire operations — is proposing to maintain our levels of service with 15 less firefighters. If OCFA wins the contract — and that's far from decided — Costa Mesa will remain safe, no matter how much the fear drum is beaten.

We are not looking to outsource our Police Department, but we are looking into structural changes that could result in efficiencies and cost savings. Whatever is decided, Costa Mesa will remain a safe city, with police staffing on par with cities of similar size and crime problems. I, along with other council members, have spouses and children who live in the city. We wouldn't jeopardize them or any other resident.

"Costa Mesa will no longer be safe!" is an easy, fear-based tactic that's worked well in the past. So it will be tried again — especially by the unions that want to keep the status quo — no matter what kind of financial mess it creates for residents.

A more realistic danger is to allow our infrastructure to continue to fall into a state of disrepair, which has been the standard procedure in Costa Mesa for closing budget gaps in recent years. For instance, city staff has estimated that we'll now need to spend $51 million in the next six years to get our roadways in shape. And that figure will skyrocket even higher if we continue putting off needed repairs.

It boils down to simple math. It costs $1.50 per square foot to apply slurry seal to our roads to keep them in excellent shape. But as the roads deteriorate, the price of fixing them climbs rapidly until it costs $6.50 per square foot to repave the streets.

It's like upkeep on a home. You can get away with a year or so without the needed paint, but soon the wood will begin rotting, and your house will need more expensive repairs. Slurry seal for our roads is like paint for your house.

The same logic is why you clean your teeth every six months or change your oil every 3,000 or so miles. You pay a little now so you won't be stuck with huge bills later.

City Chief Executive Tom Hatch is having staff develop a list of essential city services that have been cut out of the budget over the past several years. I'd like to institute a spending plan, which may take place over a decade or more, that would get Costa Mesa caught up on its infrastructure needs.

Our Founding Fathers believe two primary responsibilities of government were to provide for defense and infrastructure. This remains true today, even in Costa Mesa.

As we go through this budget process, we need to find the right balance. We need a city that is both safe and in good repair — where crime is low and the streets are smooth. In other words, a place we all want to live.

JIM RIGHEIMER is Costa Mesa's mayor pro tem.

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