Community Commentary: Contract agreements are for everyone's own good

I would like to thank the people of Costa Mesa who voted to re-elect me for four more years on the City Council. I am honored to serve the citizens of our great city.

As an elected councilwoman, I am reminded daily of the core mission of any city: to protect its citizens, provide emergency services, keep traffic moving on safe city streets, support a growing economic base and provide essential services — all within a balanced budget. Costa Mesa is fortunate to have hard-working fire and police personnel who keep our city safe and secure and have reduced our city's serious crime rate by 12% since 2009.

On Oct. 26, I voted with council members Gary Monahan and Katrina Foley for new employee agreements that support this mission. I want you to understand the reasons for my vote.

The agreements allow the city to save $3.6 million in the 2010-11 budget. During the next four years under the agreement, the city will save a total of $7.2 million . These reductions are locked in.

The agreements contain significant cost savings to the city as well as ground-breaking steps toward pension reform: 1) for the first time, all city employees have agreed to contribute to their retirement funds; 2) with this agreement's approval, new general employees hired will now be covered by a retirement plan which, among other provisions, offers a smaller package of benefits and raises the retirement age from 55 to 60.

This deal is a breakthrough reached after five months of negotiations between the city and the employee groups. City staff recommended approval of these various agreements because all parties made significant cost and contractual concessions. Also, our city attorney advised us of significant legal problems for the city if we voted against the agreements. This confidential information was given to all of the council's members.

The projected savings in the new agreements cut the city's budgetary shortfall from $9.5 million to $6.5 million. This is the first of many actions that the council will consider in coming weeks to cut city spending.

In January, the council will review the 2010-11 budget at its mid-year budget session. We will look at projections for revenue and identify other potential reductions needed to balance the budget.

In the meantime, the council has kept the city operating in a smooth and efficient manner. Our fire and police personnel are working hard to keep our city and its residents safe. Essential city services are being performed without interruption. We do not want gridlock in our city and I will continue to work for efficiency, cost savings and fundamental reform.

Other cities across California are taking similar action to hold down spending and seek savings in employee agreements. According to City Manager Allan Roeder, Costa Mesa police pension agreements are similar to all of the 21 city police departments in Orange County. All 21 cities provide "3% at 50 years." This retirement benefit is calculated using a formula that includes using years of service credit, age at retirement and final compensation.

Additionally, many of these same cities have approved similar agreements with their employee groups who are covered under the CalPERS retirement system, as are Costa Mesa's municipal and public safety workers. Costa Mesa needs to remain a competitive employer and compete with the other Orange County cities for trained police and fire personnel. Our compensation and benefit programs are competitive while saving Costa Mesa a significant amount of money.

Reasonable people may disagree with the council's decision to approve these employee agreements by arguing that the savings in these agreements were not enough and that employees should be required to give up more of their paycheck to help balance the budget.

That position simply is unrealistic, impractical and it impedes the city's contractual obligations. It may make good political theater but it is simply wrong and irresponsible. The city negotiated in good faith for much needed pension reform. The employees agreed to significant "give backs" and were ready to settle and get to work. Further delay — by voting "no" — would mean the city would continue to lose money each day, to the tune of $253,000 per month that the agreements went unsigned. In the end, we achieved an important victory for the city's long-term health.

We have begun the important work toward reforming pensions and compensation in a common sense manner. It allows the city and employee groups to work together harmoniously to find a solution that is best for Costa Mesa's long-term financial health, while delivering vital services to its citizens. The city cannot unilaterally and independently disregard state pension laws without seriously harming itself.

I am elected to serve Costa Mesa residents. At all times, my votes and actions serve the residents' interests. In the future there will be difficult decisions requiring the city to make deeper spending cuts that will reduce the level of services. These actions may cause more layoffs and/or changes in the services we have long enjoyed. In the meantime, our city employees will be working hard in their jobs serving the public. I am confident we will close the budget gap by working together in the best interests of our great city.

WENDY LEECE, Costa Mesa's mayor pro tem, was re-elected to the City Council on Nov. 2.

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