Commentary: McCarthy put politics ahead of pension facts

The most interesting feature of Colin McCarthy's commentary, "Can Costa Mesa affords $300k firefighters?" isn't that he gets so much wrong, but that he describes himself with such humility.

At the end of his essay, published in Sunday's Daily Pilot, McCarthy identifies himself only as "president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn." He is, of course, much, much more than that: a council appointee to the Costa Mesa Planning Commission and a likely candidate for a seat on the council itself.

Knowing all that — that McCarthy is, in fact, a politician and a kind of alter ego for the council members leading the charge against the city's employees — you'd expect him to get his facts straight. You'd expect him to be better informed.

That he isn't — that he gets so much so wrong in so little space — suggests just two possibilities: either he doesn't really understand the complex issues facing Costa Mesa or he's purposefully misrepresenting the facts in order to mislead the public.

Let's take his errors in order:

1.) McCarthy says the city's 2010 "much-maligned firefighter contract" allows "the fire union, not the fire chief and city manager, to dictate minimum staffing levels for our Fire Department." That's simply, flatly wrong. First, the 2010 agreement doesn't address staffing issues at all, so we'll assume he means the 2009 agreement. Second, that 2009 agreement came about because the city (not "the fire union") asked for a reduction in staffing levels established by the previous council, a council led by then-Mayor Allan Mansoor, a man who was no friend of public employees. The fire chief — who is not a member of the Costa Mesa Firefighter Assn. (CMFA) — made a recommendation to the council after thoughtful and expert analysis; those of us who were there will recall his very public presentation. The council listened and then approved the chief's recommendation. The CMFA subsequently — for McCarthy, "subsequently" means "afterward" — voted to approve those levels. The council and the chief dictated the numbers, and the CMFA approved them. You can find these staff reports at

2.) McCarthy has a rare ability to state with precision the opposite of what's true. So, when he implies that we firefighters made overtime necessary, smart people know the truth is somewhere else. They're right. In fact, when the current council majority refused to hire new staff to fill department vacancies, we firefighters were required — by the terms of that 2009 contract to fill those vacancies. That produced the overtime payments that McCarthy now seizes on as evidence that firefighters are paid too much. If city officials, including McCarthy, want to reduce staffing levels they ought to do what the chief did two years ago: Develop a plan for doing so. Of course, as the council knows, creating a staffing plan is hard work, which is why they haven't done so. Planning requires real thinking and maybe even some expertise in the area of emergency services. It's easier for politicians like McCarthy to just to complain and blame someone else.

3.) McCarthy says firefighters' pensions are based on salary and overtime. Like almost everything else in his story, this too is simply wrong. Firefighter pensions are based on reportable compensation, which does not include overtime. It's probably kinder to assume that McCarthy doesn't understand the pension system; we don't like to contemplate the alternative — that he is deliberately misstating the facts for political purposes.

4.) McCarthy says firefighter salaries will produce "expensive and unsustainable pension costs that will heavily burden our children . As it stands, our firefighters are only contributing 1% toward their retirement. Yes 1%." Truth be told, first, in 2010, knowing the city faced financial difficulties and wanting to help, we offered to contribute 6% toward our pensions. The council accepted that offer for one year. CMFA offered to extend that concession but the council chose to reject it. The offer expired. Second, if McCarthy is sincerely concerned about his offspring, he ought to ask the council's guiding members why the council refused to accept the $500,000 extension of the pension concession we offered last September. That's right: The council majority refused an offer of half a million dollars in order to allow politicians like McCarthy the opportunity to accuse us of refusing to work for a solution. Well, maybe McCarthy will support the most current offer before the council. It includes concessions that would reduce the city's pension costs immediately by $1 million per year. It also includes a second-tier retirement plan for new employees. We are still waiting for an answer. Perhaps McCarthy's CM Taxpayers Assn. could support such an offer.

I could go on like this, but I'll leave you with this: McCarthy says he wants to "remove politics from the discussion" of city employee pay and benefits. The facts suggest otherwise. See, McCarthy is a politician. He works with politicians. He has chosen politics as a professional pursuit. That alone distinguishes him from Costa Mesa's firefighters. We're not politicians. We became firefighters to serve the public through our work. We didn't choose politics. But we've had politics thrust upon us by the likes of McCarthy — politicians who either can't or won't keep their facts straight.

In the last year, we've made three major proposals to reduce the cost of fire services while maintaining quality. In response, the council majority has said nothing — or, no, not nothing: During a Jan. 31, five-year financial forecast discussion, a council member revealed the council majority's real strategy: It will simply allow labor contracts to expire and then will unilaterally cut the pay and benefits of all city employees.

That's generally called "bad faith." Sadly, it's what passes for politics in Costa Mesa today. So it's no wonder that even a politician like Commissioner McCarthy doesn't want to identify himself as a politician. Good politicians everywhere are grateful he doesn't.

TIM VASIN is president of the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn.

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