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Commentary: Councilman John Stephens understands finances better than District 1 opponents

Costa Mesa Councilman John Stephens is running for reelection.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

As a sitting council member in Costa Mesa, I’ve watched with great interest as City Council candidates running for election on Nov. 3 have shared their positions and plans. But when it comes to the candidates’ plans for the city budget, I’ve been downright alarmed.

Managing the budget is one of the most important roles of a council member in Costa Mesa. Ensuring the long-term financial stability of the city for generations to come is an obligation that I take very seriously.

When the pandemic hit, our city manager worked with each department and with each city employee group to devise a plan to reduce spending to the absolute minimum possible without severely impacting city services.

We didn’t know how long the pandemic would last. We didn’t know what the long-term impacts might be. We didn’t know when sales tax would recover or how long the sudden unemployment of thousands of service workers might end.

But we braced for the worst, proactively and with clear eyes. Most of us agreed that we would dip into reserves if we had to — those funds were for a rainy day, and it felt like it might pour for a while.

That action — and the staff report that pegged our worst-case scenario at a $30-million deficit — has now made it into campaign literature, with District 1 candidate Don Harper claiming that we’ve depleted reserves. We have not.

We do not have the worst-case scenario deficit because we took action. We could have kicked the can down the road as other cities have, but we did not.

Last week, the Finance and Pension Advisory Committee was presented with preliminary, unaudited fiscal 2019-20 budget numbers that show we will likely have a $250,000 surplus when we balance general fund revenues against expenditures.

Other candidates seem to be ignoring COVID-19 altogether and promising to spend unidentified funds on everything from infrastructure to homelessness.

District 6 candidate Jeff Pettis, in a Daily Pilot commentary, pledges “a fiscally conservative approach that includes balancing the budget and paying down unfunded liabilities so that monies can be directed to infrastructure improvement for the citizens.”

Those words, in that order, do not make sense to me. Our revenues, including sales and transient occupancy taxes, have fallen. How does he hope to balance the budget and also spend more funds?

Conversely, Mayor Pro Tem John Stephens, running for the District 1 council seat, was a key vote on the new ambulance transport model that continues to bring in greater revenues, year over year. He has also worked with the Costa Mesa Golf Course to ensure it generates revenue while operating safely during the pandemic.

He is my clear choice for that seat based on his experience and his understanding of how the city actually works. This is a time for pragmatists, not ideologues. Neither magical thinking nor false cries of fiscal conservatism will see us through the devastating financial impact of the pandemic.

The writer is a Costa Mesa councilwoman.

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