Community Commentary: Costa Mesa made many changes for the good

The end of the year is a time of reflection. That's a good thing.

As the late Peter Drucker said, "Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action."

I am grateful for the thousands of residents who have made it clear they are supportive of fundamental change in our city. It's much easier to be "for something" than to actually have to "accomplish something." This council is committed to accomplishing change that will benefit our future. As a longtime resident, businessman and community leader I am excited for the future.

First, let's look back.

The out-of-town union leaders, their hundreds of thousands of dollars in propaganda, and the union fan pages will tell you the past year has been apocalyptic.

Fortunately, the facts — and vast majority of Costa Mesa residents — say otherwise. Here are the City Council's accomplishments for 2011, achieved despite furious opposition from those who clung to the status quo — which would have soon bankrupted the city (just watch Santa Ana, which is near bankruptcy and frantically trying outsource its police, fire and 14 other services to get out from under unsustainable pension costs).

Balanced budget without the use of reserves. This is a major accomplishment, the first time Costa Mesa has done this in recent years. We had to make some tough decisions, such as transferring police helicopter services to Huntington Beach, but we did so with little impact to the community. We also managed to put away nearly $1 million in a contingency fund, directed more money to infrastructure repairs and once again begin fertilizing our sports fields and making parks and youth facilities a priority.

Hired leaders with strong ties to Costa Mesa. Our executive management team is made up of Costa Mesa shareholders (aka residents). We hired Tom Hatch as city CEO, a man whose family quickly established deep roots in Costa Mesa and engages in community activities and outcomes. Same with new Assistant CEO Rick Francis, Police Chief Tom Gazsi, interim Fire Chief Tom Arnold, Budget Director Bobby Young and Communications Director Bill Lobdell.

These leaders live here and are totally invested in Costa Mesa. It makes a difference. I find it amusing that the supporters of "status quo" drive to our city, unload their weapons of propaganda on our residents and then drive back to their homes outside of Costa Mesa city limits. Vested leaders with strong ties to our city will inherently understand change is foundational to improvement in our city.

Vowed to pay down our unfunded liabilities. The city has racked up $221 million in unfunded pension liabilities and another $34 million in unfunded retirement health-care liabilities. No city council, except the current one, has had the courage to discuss and address these issues. Soon we will have a payment plan to those huge liabilities (think of this as a maxed out credit card). These liabilities shouldn't be passed down to our children.

Begun restoration of our emergency fund. The city has a policy that at least $14 million needs to be set aside for natural disasters/emergencies. The past council ignored this policy and used $9 million of that money to fund ongoing expenses. The current council has added about $5 million to the emergency fund, which now stands at about $10 million at its lowest ebb, and plans to fully have it restored within the next fiscal year.

Been transparent in negotiations with our employee unions. Past councils, not unions nor city employees, are to blame for the city's current fiscal crisis. Council members, many put into office by union dollars (and others believing that the good times would continue forever), approved unsustainable contracts, which now take up more than 72% of the city's general budget. Pension costs alone take up more than 17% of the general fund and are predicted to skyrocket in the next several years to more than 25%. This is not only unsustainable for the taxpayers, but unsustainable for the city employees. Many don't appreciate it now, but the council action's today will ensure that their pensions will be available in the years to come. And, as much as the law will allow, we're informing the public on where our negotiations stand instead of doing the public's business behind closed doors.

Invested in basic infrastructure. Over the past few years, the city has slashed and misprioritized its obligation to infrastructure repairs to feed the ever-growing beast of employee compensation and pension costs. The mission of city government had been turned on its head: Its priority has become salaries and pensions of public employees. This council is committed to reversing that trend. This budget year we have completed the repair and reconstruction of more than 100 residential roads, many which had not seen care for 31 years. In conjunction with this council's seven-year roadway maintenance plan, we will expand the number of roads to be repaired next year to 130. For the first time, this council has developed a five-year budget plan that earmarks funds for capital improvements and repayment of unfunded liabilities.

Increased transparency. I challenge anyone — including the small group of council critics — to find a more transparent city in Orange County or the state for that matter. This council has embraced transparency, allowing the public to see how its business is being conducted. It isn't pretty at times, but that's democracy. You can find almost any public document easily on our website. If something's not there, let me know and we'll publish it. At my request, warrants (disbursements) and legal settlements are now made public. This is our checkbook, for all to view. We've also added a weekly e-newsletter, a daily "Costa Mesa Minute" video newscast and daily updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Advocated the principal of self-governance. Because of union influence, our state teeters on the brink of a financial disaster. And each year, unions get legislators to pass laws to limit cities' ability to self govern. We are now working on a city charter — or constitution — that will free Costa Mesa from Sacramento control. It is our Declaration of Independence. It's about local control and financial savings. Who could be against that? You guessed it: unions!

Saved Christmas? Well, at least saved the "Snoopy House." The city's partnership with Jim Jordan to bring the 45-year tradition that's the Snoopy House Christmas display to City Hall is indicative of the council's new attitude. We are committed to re-reinvigorating government, raising the bar of employee expectations and creating deeper ties to the community. As a longtime resident and community leader, I am excited for the future.

If you asked me (and most Costa Mesa residents), 2011 was a very good year for positive change in local government.

STEVE MENSINGER is a Costa Mesa council member.

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