City Life: City, unions should examine other cities' solutions, mistakes

One of the more dismaying elements of the loud, ugly feud between Costa Mesa's City Council majority and the city's public employee unions is the failure of either side to recognize that many other cities are also having trouble making ends meet.

By acknowledging that fact, both sides will valuably reduce the need to experiment with ways to remain solvent, while maintaining current levels of safety, sanitation and maintenance.

To find the best solutions for Costa Mesa, in other words, both sides should look at what other cities have done. This is commonly known as adopting "best practices." This examination has another benefit; that is, leaders may also learn what mistakes to avoid.

The research required is neither complex nor time-consuming.

Costa Mesa's population is 117,000. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 16 U.S. cities with populations ranging from 115,000 to 119,000. Some of those cities, such as Independence, Mo., and Santa Clara, are well-known. Others, such as Surprise, Ariz., and Thornton, Colo., are not yet on the national radar.

In Evansville, Ind., residents saw the loss of 1,100 jobs when appliance manufacturer Whirlpool closed its refrigerator factory in June 2010. Workers were given an official notice of nine months but, thanks to rumors, they were able to prepare for the job losses for more than a year.

An interesting story in the Evansville Courier-Press newspaper reported that this June, the former Whirlpool workers had gotten on with their lives. Some had retired, some had taken lower-paying local jobs and some had moved away to find work at wages similar to what they made at Whirlpool.

Though there was one rally, and some sharp comments by bitter employees, there was nothing even close to retaliation or violence.

Some of the layoff news reports out of Springfield, Mo., read like they could have jumped off the pages of this newspaper.

In the Feb. 8, 2011 edition of the Springfield State Journal-Register, there are the following quotes regarding the pending layoffs of several public employees:

"City workers who could be without jobs at the end of the month pleaded to Springfield aldermen Tuesday to find other ways to cut costs."

"Go back and take another look at this budget and go through this thing with a fine-tooth comb and look at areas that can be cut that are more realistic than putting five people and their families' lives in turmoil" (Roger Griffith, staff representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31)

"We're only in the black enough to take care in case something goes wrong, I don't want anybody sitting out there thinking we have money, because we don't. We need to have $8 million to $12 million" in reserves, (Mayor Frank) Edwards said. "On paper, we have $3 million."

Same thing in Santa Clara, where ABC News reported last November:

"Santa Clara city leaders are moving forward with a plan to lay off dozens of employees. They have to close a big budget deficit and are still trying to get all of the employees' unions to accept pay cuts or furloughs."

"Santa Clara City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday night to support a layoff plan that will move forward in January, if all employees do not agree to concessions. It's facing a $5 million deficit this year and $13 million next year."

Naturally, the problems facing these and other same-size cities are not perfect examples of Costa Mesa's woes. But there are enough similarities to warrant an examination of how they are coping. If that process is being undertaken, it sure would help to know.

This exercise is more than a matter of efficiency; of trying to give residents the biggest bang for their bucks. Researching the solutions and mistakes of other cities also fosters cooperation between two sides that need to stop shouting and start listening.

I propose a committee of four people, two representatives of the council majority and two union representatives to conduct this simple research to find proven ways of coping in this economic crisis and make recommendations.

It's either that, or remain "ground zero" for this and future struggles for a very long time.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer.

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