Community Commentary: City's pension problem is only getting worse

A local pension watchdog group has published its updated figures on municipal pensions, and the news for Costa Mesa is frightening.

Costa Mesa's number of pension recipients whose pay exceeds $100,000 continues to grow — up nearly 50% in just one year! Two former Costa Mesa deputy fire chiefs top the list at a whopping $190,000 per year each.

Last year, I wrote an editorial piece in response to criticism by a former Costa Mesa police officer of financial reforms that were taking place at City Hall. At the time, I pointed out that this police officer was allowed to retire at age 50 and received a pension of $146,000 a year for life. One year later, that same officer is now making $165,000 a year in retirement.

How many Americans receive a $19,000 yearly increase after they retire?

What shocks and outrages me even more is that Costa Mesa's second-highest pension earner — a former deputy fire chief who is receiving a pension payment of $193,000 a year — is not even retired. A quick search shows that he is presently employed and running his own company. The taxpayers are paying him in retirement, and he is still working and earning a second paycheck.

How is this fair or ethical?

But we can't blame the individual workers for this mess. If your boss offered you a gold-plated retirement, you would probably take it in a minute. Blame the elected state and local leaders who allowed this to happen.

In Costa Mesa, our elected leaders were bullied by the unions into accepting one of the biggest taxpayer rip-offs around — 3% at 50. This retirement formula permits public safety workers to retire as early as age 50 with up to 90% of their highest salary for life.

No wonder these workers are retiring and getting second jobs. How many workers do you know who hang it up at age 50? Many of these workers simply take this retirement gift and get second jobs.

Do they return their pension? Of course not. They simply take two paychecks.

Why are the Costa Mesa taxpayers paying retirement benefits to people who are not even retired?

As most Orange County cities migrate away from 3% at 50 to more taxpayer-friendly retirement formulas, Costa Mesans are stuck with these policies until at least 2014. There is nothing we can do to retroactively fix this scam. Again, this is a failure of leadership to recognize and address a growing problem.

There are some simple steps the city can take to balance this taxpayer-funded extravagance in the future. First, our local elected leaders need to better negotiate contracts for the residents. The city has already started doing that by hiring independent experts to negotiate on behalf of the city.

In the past, the director of administrative services negotiated the contracts on behalf of the City Council. This is a direct conflict of interest. That director is negotiating his own retirement benefits and therefore has a vested interest in obtaining the highest taxpayer-funded retirement possible.

Our elected leaders also need to read the fine print and understand the details of what they are agreeing to. Two years ago I attended a community meeting in which an elected City Council member could not even articulate the details of the contract he had just voted for.

That is ridiculous. We are now paying the price for the lack of education and understanding by our elected leaders.

We all know that Sacramento is controlled by special interests and labor unions. That is unlikely to change soon. We cannot expect that a viable solution to this problem will come from the state. It is up to the residents to demand accountability from our local leaders and force them to recognize the problem and agree to a fix.

Costa Mesa's pension list is only going to grow and get worse until we start addressing the problem.

COLIN MCCARTHY is president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn.

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