Two weeks ago, as I was riding back to the firehouse from an emergency response call, a man pulled up on the passenger side of the truck, signaling me to roll down my window. When I did, he delivered the international symbol of ultimate displeasure, shouted "Greedy union firefighters!" and sped off.
It's probably worth noting that all of this occurred across from City Hall, a source these days of misinformation that creates the sort of hostility that has otherwise decent people outraged by the appearance of firefighters.
That misinformation sometimes comes straight from the top. Take Mayor Gary Monahan's Dec. 6 essay in the Daily Pilot ("Firefighters should contribute more").
Let's start by saying we've always respected Monahan, and nothing we're going to say here should suggest we're feeling differently now. He's a successful local businessman and a longtime public servant.
But it's also fair to say we're disappointed — and confused — by his piece. From the headline, "Firefighters should contribute more," to his conclusion, the mayor's essay is riddled with errors. He seems to have forgotten that he voted two years ago to lower the retirement age from 55 to 50, part of what seemed then a reasonable way to downsize the department through retirement rather than layoffs. He doesn't remember that he voted to approve the very pension program he now regards as unworkable. He can't recall that when the city asked its firefighters to take additional cuts after that deal was approved, we agreed.
Now, "firefighters should contribute more"? We already do. Since October 2010, we've paid an additional 5% of the cost of our pensions.
Our additional contribution was scheduled to expire Nov. 5, 2011. When it became apparent that talks with the City Council weren't likely to produce a broader deal before the deadline, we unilaterally offered to continue making payments for three months while discussions continue.
Inexplicably, the mayor rejected our offer, saying it was insufficient. Let me say that again: In seeking cost savings, the mayor and council majority rejected an offer, making taxpayers contribute an additional $500,000 into the firefighters' pension fund.
We say "inexplicable," but after reading the mayor's commentary, it's easy to conclude that $500,000 is the current cost of playing politics — the cost of being able to accuse the city's firefighters of wrecking the city budget.
We offer this essay as a clarification for Monahan and for those who read his piece:
1. "The employees' associations all have top-flight attorneys who help them with their negotiations," he wrote. Five hundred thousand dollars of your money also apparently buys the mayor the right to accuse the firefighters of hiring well-paid negotiators to outflank the council. In fact, we firefighters aren't represented in City Hall negotiations by anybody but ourselves. Ironically, at his direction, city representatives created the pay and benefits packages he ultimately voted to approve — the very deals he now regards as unworkable.
2. The "problem" with those pay and benefits packages "is just basic math," the mayor says, but he goes on to demonstrate a misunderstanding of basic math and business. He writes, for instance, that 72% of the city's budget goes to employee compensation, as if this is somehow an outrageous number. It's not. In fact, like all service-sector organizations, labor is the city of Costa Mesa's biggest cost. And 72% is at the low end of the spectrum. According to the accounting firm KPMG, labor typically accounts for 74% to 85% of all costs in the service sector; in manufacturing — where companies have to buy material for the production process, manufacturing equipment and factories, and pay for shipping — labor is just 46% to 60% of all costs.
3. "For union officials, there's been a major disconnect between the new fiscal reality brought on by the recession, the unsustainable pension system, the mood of the public and their offers during negotiations. We need labor contracts that structurally address the pension problems we've brought upon ourselves." The "new fiscal reality" was apparent to everyone in the fall of 2008, when Wall Street collapsed. That was two years before the mayor agreed to the current deal. Since then, Costa Mesa's firefighters have agreed to shoulder a greater part of the burden of pension contributions; have kept the 5% pension offer on the table; and agreed to open-ended negotiations about the future of the Costa Mesa Fire Department.
4. Intelligent people can (and often do) change their minds, and the mayor has clearly come around to a new perspective about the pension program — a program he voted for but now says is "fiscally unsound" because "firefighters can retire and start collecting 90% of their salary as early as age 50." The mayor may forget — but we do not — that he and his colleagues on the council in 2009 voted to drop the retirement age from 55 to 50 in order to downsize the department without layoffs. And it's perhaps a small point to the mayor, but while firefighters can retire at 50 and receive the full benefit, they must also have completed 30 years of service. In fact, the average Costa Mesa firefighter retires at 56.3 years of age.
5. In describing the failure of some cities to create sustainable agreements with their public employees, the mayor writes, "Neighboring Santa Ana and cities across California are finding this out the hard way. It doesn't have to be like that in Costa Mesa." It sure doesn't. But this is a false choice — between a Santa Ana that defied basic laws of economics and a Costa Mesa City Council that doesn't seem to understand those basic laws. It ignores another possibility: that Costa Mesa's firefighters have been and will continue to be partners in creating a sustainable solution to the city's budget challenges. We continue to be willing to discuss increased contributions to the pension fund. We do this because we're committed to the safety of the city. We know that the financial challenges facing Costa Mesa are real and we are determined to be a part of the solution.
The mayor's commentary in the Pilot has us wondering whether he shares that determination or, as seems more likely, has decided that it's easier to produce the kind of misinformation that generates misunderstanding and even open hostility.
The total cost to Costa Mesa of that sort of hostility is anybody's guess. How do you put a price on the decline of civil society? In any case, the mayor has already made a $500,000 down payment. Unfortunately, the money he's spending is yours.
TIM VASIN is president of the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn.