Commentary: Costa Mesa needs 'a return to normal'

Inhumane. Draconian. Extreme.

Those are some of the wild adjectives that the Costa Mesa employees' union recently used to describe the City Council's initial contract offer.

Few of Costa Mesa's hard-working and recession-hardened residents would use the same words for a contract offer that, among other things, reduced sick days for public employees from an astonishing 12 annually to a reasonable six (and doesn't allow them to bank unused days).

The City Council also asked a workforce where 311 of the 450 full-time employees [about 200 are represented by the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn.] receive more than $100,000 in total compensation — including a five-star pension package that takes up 20% of the city's General Fund budget while still creating more than $220 million in unfunded liabilities — to take a 5% pay cut.

And there was the proposal to eliminate two of what's termed "floating holidays," still leaving the employees a dozen paid holidays annually.

I, along with I'll wager the vast majority of Costa Mesa residents, only want a return to normal.

For too many years, past city councils with the help of the employees' union expert negotiator (the city used a department head untrained in negotiations who would also receive any pay and benefit increases) have added more and more contracts until the pay and benefits are what most of us in the private sector could only dream of: the sick days, generous vacation allowances (that can be banked), seven automatic pay raises for each position, premium health care plans and an unsustainable pension plan that even today has drained the city's ability to keep up with its infrastructure needs. This is the result of the past cooperation union officials kept referring to. Of course they'd like to go back to those days.

Here's the irony. Thanks to a thriving business community that includes the tax-generating machine called South Coast Plaza, our city has plenty of revenue. The problem has been misplaced spending priorities. We've made public-employee compensation a top priority, squeezing out basic city staples such as infrastructure repairs and youth sports leagues.

No one but union officials would say that's fair to the taxpayer.

This isn't just a Costa Mesa phenomenon. It's happened in virtually every city and county throughout California.

What cities need to do is what Costa Mesa is doing right now: resetting the table. We want our employees to earn a good living. They deserve no less. But we can't have Costa Mesa taxpayers providing their civil servants with compensation packages that are unheard of in today's private sector while sacrificing infrastructure needs and services to pay for them.

During the course of these negotiations, you'll hear plenty of rhetoric from the employees' union about the "inhumane" offers the City Council is making to its workers. This is right from of their how-to-win-during-contract-negotiations playbook and has worked for decades.

But we are in a new era of economic reality and transparency. That playbook won't work any longer.

Costa Mesa residents are fair people. They understand that the pendulum on public employee compensation has swung too far to the union's side. It's time for a return to reason, fiscal sanity and sustainability. It's time that Costa Mesa residents' needs were put first and the union stopped looking at local taxpayers as an unlimited ATM machine while the city can't make basic repairs or provide basic services.

As negotiations proceed under the transparency of the new Civic Openness In Negotiations (COIN) ordinance, the deals once stuck in the backrooms of City Hall will now be debated by the public in the sunshine of maximum disclosure.

And hardworking Costa Mesans can decide for themselves whether the city's position is — as labeled by union leaders — inhumane, draconian and extreme or simply fair and equitable to all, employees and residents.

JIM RIGHEIMER is mayor of Costa Mesa.

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