Community Commentary: What is our city's mission?

Our fair city of Costa Mesa has been roiled with controversy over the past few weeks about our serious budget deficit and the actions our City Council is taking in an attempt to correct it. I thought I'd look into the facts about this situation, in an effort to cut through the rhetoric and become better informed.

According to reported data, the average Costa Mesa household earns about $60,000 per year. Three hundred and sixty-six of Costa Mesa's 472 employees are paid more than $100,000 per year. Eighty-five of them take down more than $200,000 per year. We spend more than 85% of our total budget on salaries.

From more than 20% spent on infrastructure improvements (streets, curbs, parks, etc.) just a few years back, our current budget allows for less than 4%. We're still about $1.5 million upside down on this year's budget. A $15 million annual revenue shortfall is projected in the very near future without major changes. And the city is more than $130 million underfunded in terms of its pension contribution obligations.

Reflecting on these rather startling facts, I asked myself, what exactly is our city, any city's, mission? Is it to hire as many well-paid people as possible to perform needed tasks, providing each with unequalled benefits and a comfortable retirement for life? Or is to provide necessary services in a timely and efficient manner at the lowest reasonable cost to its taxpayers?

If it's the former, what happens if and when you have one of those periodic economic downturns, such as the one in which we now find ourselves, and you get to the point where continued largesse is no longer affordable? If it's the latter, why should we employ anyone if the services they're to perform can be acquired from a private, tax-paying outside provider that can deliver them with equal efficiency and for less money?

There are those who will argue on both sides of this debate. As an entrepreneur and business owner and manager, I tend to come down on the side of quick, efficient, reliable and cost-effective service delivery. Businesses of all sizes do it every day. Why shouldn't we?

I frankly would rather have profit-making enterprises bidding against each other to win the opportunity to fill our potholes and trim our grass and trap wayward coyotes, and then pay taxes on any profit that ensues. But what of the current employees who might get left behind in such a transformation? Those who perhaps shouldn't have been hired in the first place if previous councils had been a little more fiscally prudent?

We know our police are not to be included in this bidding process, and most all of our firefighters will be transferred into the Orange County Fire Authority, so critical services are beyond the scope of this current debate. So, considering the non-critical, I think it likely our council could quite easily design a changeover that includes a sweetener to induce prospective service providers to offer jobs on a first-right-of-refusal basis to those who currently fill those slots.

Thus, the number of those losing their jobs could be dramatically reduced while the level of service remains acceptable or better, and the costs of obtaining it decreases. And if no acceptable bids from outside providers are received, the layoff notices could quickly be rescinded.

At the end of the process, we'd know our council had made every effort to provide its citizens with necessary services via the competitive-bidding process that would insure the biggest bang for our collective buck. And, in summation, isn't that what they've been elected to do? Shouldn't we recall them if they did anything less?

My little offering here might not change the minds of those who are dead set on retaining our present labor force at their current salaries, benefits and retirement advantages. But I would ask them to tell us where they intend to find the millions of dollars which will be necessary to balance our books, both now and in the future, if we don't make these hard choices and make them right away?

CHUCK CASSITY is a Costa Mesa resident.

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