Blame it on Osama bin Laden.
When municipalities across California and the country are trying to rein in payroll and growing pension costs — particularly those for police and firefighters — Orange County Employees Assn. counsel Don Drozd pointed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks Wednesday as a watershed moment for public safety workers that lead to years of pay increases and cushier retirement packages.
Public sentiment was behind them and the recession wasn't on anyone's radar, Drozd said. Add in that for years the California Public Employees' Retirement System was flush with more than enough money to fund retirements — which cities took as a sign that they didn't need to keep paying into it — and you had a recipe for over-reaching, according to Drozd.
"The answer is we did go a little wrong," he said. "[Pensions] weren't designed to make anybody rich. If anyone is getting rich off a public employee pension, that's abuse and it needs to stop."
Drozd was speaking at the Hotel Hanford in Costa Mesa, where he was being honored as a Legal Leader by Whittier Law School. Costa Mesa City Councilman Steve Mensinger was in the audience listening. The city is embroiled in a lawsuit with its employees, who are represented by OCEA.
"I think Don definitely gave the OCEA perspective," Mensinger said. "He's a very smart man. He avoided part of the issue: the sustainability of pensions. The reason the private sector no longer uses the pension model is it's unsustainable."
Drozd disagreed. While certain formulas may be hard to fund in the long term, public pensions can work with employees and employers paying their fair share. He pointed to negotiations OCEA employees had with the county in 2007 that successfully saved the county money and increased worker benefits.
"If you want it, you're going to pay for it," he said. "We did this at the bargaining table. We did it offline. We didn't do it in the papers."
Drozd credited Costa Mesa with leading the way on addressing pensions. In the last year, Costa Mesa's executives have agreed to pay into their own pensions. The so-called "$100,000 Club" of public employees, with pensions in the six-figure range, are the real drain on cities, not the rank-and-file workers, he said.
However, those are who Costa Mesa has aimed squarely at. Since 2011, the council majority has pushed to outsource hundreds of jobs while adding to the city's executive payroll.
While Costa Mesa is negotiating with both its police and firefighters for new retirement formulas and pension contributions, the city has yet to sit down with its nonpublic safety workers.
"We'll collaborate when the other side is willing to," Drozd said.