Difficult decisions

Most of the Costa Mesa City Council deserves praise for doing what it was elected to do: make tough calls.

The recent decision to reduce payroll and other expenses to make budget was one of this economy's necessary evils. No one likes to see people lose their jobs, but the council's foremost fiduciary responsibility rests with the taxpayers, not individual employees.

Under a council directive, the city on Friday eliminated many city programs and 23 full-time positions. Seven full-time positions were reduced to part-time, and 20 part-time workers were laid off. Those figures, which are somewhat in flux as employees take different positions or voluntarily leave, could change in the coming days.

The old adage about trimming spending is appropriate here unless it affects your job. Our hearts go out to anyone laid off. The folks in the newspaper business can empathize with that, and we are certain that the city manager's team did all it could to avoid proposing layoffs.

Yet this painful move is necessary, as City Hall faces an estimated $16.4 million deficit in next year's budget. The council was right to act this year before that hole deepens.

The program cuts and layoffs account for about $8.4 million in savings, and an $8 million deficit remains. The city cannot live off its reserves forever.

One upshot: Officials granted a reprieve to the Recreation on Campus for Kids After School (ROCKS) program, as supporters continue to fundraise and the city looks for grant funding. The programs could be ended in August, but we hope the city finds the money for such worthy causes.

There are also new fees, like an increase for animal licenses, and a ballot measure that would add 2% to hotel bed taxes. Raising it to 3% would have been a better idea: As suggested by Councilwoman Katrina Foley, aligning the tax with the countywide average could save jobs. But we also see why the majority wanted to keep hotel rates competitive: to give it an edge among frugal-minded travelers.

Foley voted against reducing the city's workforce, using reserve funds instead. We see her point, and also hate the idea of reduced services, but feel that the majority made the right choice in this case, particularly without calling for a hike in the hotel bed tax.

Councilman Eric Bever sided with the majority, saying, quite aptly:

"I understand your desire to keep everyone employed … it's fiscally irresponsible. We have an 800-pound gorilla, the other $8 million that we haven't even addressed yet. Something that I don't think you realize is that last fiscal year, our cost for staff was 110% of our revenue. When you compare money that came in, 110% went to staff cost. We can't continue down that road."

Continuing reserve spending is not only going "down that road," as the councilman said, but a dead end. It was time for the council to apply the brakes.

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