Community Commentary: Unions, city must find a responsible balance

According to various news reports, organized labor wants to try to stop cities from getting on more of a business footing and from outsourcing high paying municipal jobs to the private sector.

And it appears that organized labor, not only in Orange County and California but nationwide, may be focusing on Costa Mesa to make its stand.

As a longtime union member, I'll be the first to tell you that unions are often needed to protect workers.

Even in businesses that don't have unions, management is aware that if they mistreat workers such actions may motivate those workers to organize. So, even the thought of this happening helps prevent our society from devolving to a Dickensian level.

However, and notwithstanding the above positive comments about unions, I'll also be the first to tell you that as with all things in life, there must be a proper and reasonable balance between the power of the unions and the power of those who are employing the workers.

Which brings up what is happening in Costa Mesa.

Many residents look at the high salaries and benefits received by city workers and realize that much of their tax money is being siphoned off into wages and benefits instead of going to remove slums, put in pocket parks and do many of the things that will improve the city and make it an attractive home for upwardly mobile young families.

These residents aren't just guessing about this siphoning off of their tax money into wages and benefits. There are ratios based on what other cities spend on labor versus other things in their budgets, and it turns out that Costa Mesa spends more than 80% of its budget on wages and benefits while the average for California cities is down below 50%.

When there is such a marked disparity between what Costa Mesa pays in wages and benefits as compared with the average for the state's cities, red flags should be raised. And that's exactly what happens in private business. Those ratios are watched and adjustments are made to keep things on an even keel. This also needs to happen in municipal governments.

Fortunately, we now have a responsible majority on the City Council that seems to understand such things, and they are trying to right our financial ship for the benefit of the people who actually live and vote here in Costa Mesa.

There is more to this, however. A city can't stand still. If it does this, it deteriorates. And, standing still is what Costa Mesa has been doing as far as improving its infrastructure.

Sure, we mow the lawns and sweep the streets, but we need to do more. We need to get serious about the Westside and invest the money to prime the pump of change over there.

We also need to get our municipal government more on a business footing.

More of a business footing simply means that we use common sense and that we keep an eye on our expenses and use business tools such as the ratios mentioned above to make sure that we're not spending more than we have to spend to deliver services to the residents of the city.

But we need to do more. We need to have enough money in the pot after we pay wages and benefits to make the types of capital improvements to the Westside that will bring that area up to par with the rest of the city instead of letting it look as though it's part of some abandoned inner city where nobody really cares if it has slums, gangs and social dysfunction.

From where I sit — outside of government — it looks to me as though the majority on the City Council is doing what needs to be done to get things fixed and on more of a business footing.

As long as they stay on the right track and don't go too far astray, the council majority will have my one vote.

And, I suspect they'll have the votes of many other citizens who also want Costa Mesa to be improved and to be competitive with other cities that are attracting well educated, contributing residents to those cities.

M.H. MILLARD is a Costa Mesa resident and publishes the CM PRESS blog.

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