The Daily Pilot published a letter (“Councilmen fed well while on the job”) Thursday from Jennifer Muir, a spokeswoman from the Orange County Employees Assn. She claimed that Costa Mesa City Council members were “feeding at the public trough — literally!” by bringing in $4,200 worth of food for meeting-night dinners and receptions between July 2008 and January 2011.
One problem with that revelation: In a cost-saving move, the council stopped those dinners nearly a year ago. As a new council member, I’ve never eaten at the “trough,” despite Muir’s claims.
I did some checking, and the meals — once a tradition in Costa Mesa — fed the council and about 10 staff members before twice-monthly meetings that could stretch past midnight. The dinners weren’t “gourmet meals,” as the employee association spokeswoman termed them. The average cost of the take-out food was about $70. Still, given the economic times, the council last year decided to cut the dinners.
So the council is way ahead of Muir when she asks in her letter: “May we suggest brown-bagging it next time?”
But here’s the real point: Errors, misstatements and out-of-context information about the city’s budget crisis obscure and trivialize the formidable and systemic fiscal problems facing Costa Mesa and most other cities in California.
The numbers in Costa Mesa that outline the problem are straightforward:
• The city has used more than $30 million of its reserves in the past three years to fill in its budget gap.
• It’s finishing the 2010-11 fiscal year (ending June 30) about $1.6 million in the red.
• In the past several years, the city has eliminated more than 100 positions and cut back on infrastructure repairs and other services.
• Costa Mesa has $221 million (market value) in unfunded pension liabilities and another $35.5 million in unfunded retirement health benefit liabilities.
• Rising pension costs are projected to soon represent more than 20% of the city’s total budget.
• Costs of employee salaries and benefits make up more than 80% of the city’s total budget.
The debate isn’t whether Costa Mesa has a financial problem that needs a long-term fix. And it shouldn’t be about phantom issues (for instance, Muir wrongly implies we are about to remodel City Hall for $7.8 million; we have no money to fix our aging Civic Center).
The discussion needs to be how we go forward to create a sustainable budget that provides adequate services for our residents, proper investment in infrastructure and healthy reserves.
The answers may come from restructuring, more budget cuts, outsourcing, increased employee pension contributions, two-tiered retirement plans, reduced pay or a combination of some or all of these measures.
In the meantime, if there’s legitimate waste in our $90-million plus annual budget (and I’m sure there is), let’s identify and eliminate it. But let’s not get distracted by mythical $10,000 car allowances and “jewel-encrusted nameplates,” or outdated and exaggerated stories of council members feasting on gourmet meals.
They don’t exist, but our budget problems are very real.
STEVE MENSINGER is a Costa Mesa councilman.