Commentary: Anti-public safety, or good stewards of tax dollars?

Re. "Commentary: I see issues with CMPD hiring," (Aug. 16):

I was surprised to read former Costa Mesa police lieutenant and Idaho resident Allen Huggins' recent piece about city politics in the Daily Pilot. Usually, when a former police officer chimes in from 1,300 miles away to sling mud at his former employer, there is more to the story. In this case, there is.

Mr. Huggins takes issue with the fact that a majority of Costa Mesa's City Council is working to overhaul outrageous and unsustainable salary and benefits packages that are slowly bankrupting cities like Costa Mesa. Rather than address the merits of the issue, Mr. Huggins takes a swipe at our elected leaders, who are working to address this problem.

Here are a few facts the readers should know about Mr. Huggins. Mr. Huggins retired earlier this year from the Costa Mesa Police Department. His total compensation (salary and benefits) was $259,000, which included a $14,000 cash payout for accrued leave.

In "retirement," Mr. Huggins will initially make roughly $158,000 per year, and will get a standard 2% yearly cost of living increase. I put quotations around the word "retirement." Mr. Huggins is not retired. In fact, as his letter mentions, he has moved to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where he owns a successful business.

Taxpayers are literally paying Mr. Huggins $158,000 per year to have a second career in Idaho. Who wouldn't love to live in Idaho and wait for a $13,000 taxpayer check to come in the mailbox every month?

This is an unfortunate byproduct of a system that allows police officers to retire way too early, in the prime of their lives--.a system that Mr. Huggins and his police union bought and paid for through years of political contributions and campaign attacks in City Council races. Now, Mr. Huggins is attacking those who want to fix this broken system?

The Costa Mesa Police Department promoted Mr. Huggins to captain literally 14 months before he retired. This allowed Mr. Huggins to add an additional $10,000 per year to his pension. Over the life of that pension, Costa Mesa residents will pay hundreds of thousands of extra dollars to Mr. Huggins for a promotion he had for only one year.

Mr. Huggins goes on to tell us that he is a Republican, and therefore we are to assume that he is on the side of fiscal reform.

What do political parties have to do with run-away public sector salary and benefits?

It doesn't matter if your political colors are red, blue or green; the issue is simply one of dollars and cents. Of course Mr. Huggins wants the gravy train to continue steaming down the tracks. Unfortunately, that gravy train comes at a tremendous cost to you and me. Those costs are only increasing every year, and unless significant reform is accomplished at both the state and local levels, officers like Mr. Huggins will become the norm, not the exception.

Our city will continue to see less money put into basic operations, infrastructure and local programs and more money going out of state to support lavish and outrageous retirement benefits for former employees who are not even retired. It is pure lunacy!

So the City Council is in a no-win situation. They can continue to toe the line and not upset the powerful union apple cart, continue to hand out unsustainable salaries and pensions in order not to incur the wrath of officers like Mr. Huggins.

Kick the can until it snowballs into debt that future generations will have to worry about. That will only lead to chronic and long-term problems for future councils and residents, debt that may prevent the city from honoring its obligations to younger police officers. Will there be money around to fund those retirements?

Or the City Council can push for much-needed reform at the local level and constantly be labeled as "anti-public safety."

I am here to tell you that simply because you question the salary and benefits of our Police Department does not make you anti-public safety. It makes you a good steward of our precious tax dollars.

We should be asking tough questions and peeling back the layers of this broken system. I hope more residents will understand the long-term implications of our unsustainable compensation system and that solutions cannot come only from Sacramento.

There should be no more taxpayer-funded Allen Hugginses. This city belongs to us, and we are responsible to ensure that reasonable public safety compensation is balanced with other important competing financial interests--compensation that is fair to both our employees and the 113,000 residents of this great city.

Planning Commissioner COLIN MCCARTHY is the founder of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Assn.

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