Commentary: In this scenario, Goliath is the unions

Wendy Leece, my City Council colleague, recently wrote about the "grassroots movement" that's formed to oppose the proposed city charter and improvement it brings.

Let me take her assertions one by one.

"It is truly a David vs. Goliath battle about principles over politics in Costa Mesa."

In a way, Wendy is actually correct.

The "David" is the Costa Mesa residents. The "Goliath" is the unions that have been so successful in electing council members and securing unsustainable pensions that they nearly bleed our city dry.

"Goliath" (unions and their supporters) will do anything to stop the proposed charter, which will transfer local power from union-run Sacramento to our community.

"Also, we're tired of the council majority bashing the employees, past councils and a former city manager who have helped to make Costa Mesa a great, safe and clean city."

The council majority hasn't bashed employees. I have always contended the employees are not to blame. We have criticized past councils that voted again and again for unsustainable salaries and benefits for employees that have caused our city to stop adequate investment in infrastructure, slash critical programs, rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded liabilities and make the first priority funding the pension beast and not serving the Costa Mesa residents.

"Costa Mesa has made progress in pension reform, but the majority doesn't want to talk about the savings because it's never enough for their campaign against the unions."

A small amount of progress has been made, but the city needs systemic improvement and structural reform if it's going to deliver the services needed to become one of Southern California's best places to live. Taxpayers — many of them personally affected by the Great Recession and, even if employed, without a company pension — should be outraged at the system in place for many employees.

Firefighters and police officers can retire after 30 years with 90% of their very healthy salaries for life. Regular employees can retire after 30 years with 75% of their salary for life. This last year we had 65 retirees who each collected over $100,000 a year in pensions. Next year we will add another 20 to the $100,000 pension club. All this is occurring with an unfunded liability in excess of $220 million!

"The new formula [that provides more employee contributions to their own pensions and a second tier for general employees] may impact our ability to recruit the best employees. Why would people want to work for Costa Mesa if they can get a better deal elsewhere?"

Really, Wendy?

This is just plain insulting and wrong. For public safety jobs, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants for each position. And for general employees, who wouldn't want a job that pays extremely well (we have handymen who make $84,000 in total compensation) and includes a generous pension paid mostly by taxpayers?

"Many are insulted by the way the council majority has been moving recklessly this past year."

Only the unions and its supporters. The average resident who wants their taxes to go to first-class services, roads, park improvements and youth sports facilities thinks the council isn't moving fast enough. The majority in the community want our city to quickly come to terms with our challenges and solve them.

The key aspect to this debate is clear: Does the city stay on this path of un-sustainability (and no one has shown how the current pension system will do nothing but eventually bankrupt the city) that translates to a union-controlled Costa Mesa where equipment does not function, roads go unrepaired, parks and sports fields are dotted with gopher holes, and unfunded pension liabilities skyrocket unchecked, as if the problem will magically be solved if we ignore it long enough?

Or do we regain control of our city from the unions, put the needs of residents first and do such radical things as live within our means, invest in infrastructure and — without the burden of lavish pensions —make sure our city attracts the best families possible. Perhaps reducing crime by eliminating the attractions for paroles is a more worthy cause. Without systemic reform in our employee benefits, we have no options.

We can all agree that we are not alone in our quest to reform and improve municipal government so that it provides services effectively, efficiently and in balance with our ability to pay for them. We can all agree that reform has to occur today, or our kids and their kids will be paying the bill.

While I disagree with Councilwoman Leece that the charter is the wrong path, the discussion shows progress on the dialogue needed to reform and improve, and save our city from fiscal suicide.

STEVE MENSINGER is a Costa Mesa city councilman.

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