Costa Mesa’s Curious Math

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Costa Mesa Councilman Jim Righeimer at a City Council meeting. (Photo by: Nick Gerda)

Tuesday, April 26, 2010 | As Costa Mesa officials have debated their plans to privatize city operations over the past two months, the council majority has consistently argued that the rationale for mass layoffs is just simple math.

Except in Costa Mesa, the numbers don't always add up.

Consider three prominent figures recently touted by City Hall:

64 percent.

This is the percentage of voters that the city's website claims that Councilman Jim Righeimer -- the council's head cheerleader for the outsourcing plan -- won in the November election.

Righeimer's biography on the city website notes that "Jim was the highest vote getter with 64 percent of the voters selecting him as their choice for the council."

Yet this is not the percentage of the vote that the OC Registrar of Voters recorded for Righeimer. The Registrar has Righeimer receiving 12,997 votes or 31.7 percent of votes cast.

When former Councilwoman Katrina Foley read Righeimer's biography, she assumed the 64 percent was a typo and sent an email alerting Bill Lobdell, the city's interim communications director.

But Lobdell emailed back that it was not a typo. He explained the city's logic:

Every voter gets two votes. Two seats were available. If 100 people voted and they each have two votes, 200 votes would be cast. If all of them (100%) voted for one candidate, the most votes that candidate could get would be 100. Total votes cast would be 200 (each voter gets 2 votes). So 100% of the voters voted for the candidate, even though the candidate received 50% of total votes cast (which is how the OC Registrar would report it).

Righeimer received 32% of all votes cast, which means 64% of the voters had to give him 1 of their 2 votes,

Make sense?

"No!" is how Foley replied.

No registrar of voters in California reports election results in such a way.

When describing the discrepancy to Voice of OC, Righeimer said it was an "easy" inference to double his vote tally and insisted that it's mathematically correct to infer that there's a difference between the number of voters voting and their votes.

"There's two votes. I had 64 percent of the voters voting," he said at first. When questioned on that logic, he adjusted to say, "The number is closer to 64 than to 31."

However, Righeimer's theory assumes that every voter actually voted for all of the options they were allowed (such as two council choices in Costa Mesa). Registrars interviewed for this story say you can't make that assumption.

Conny McCormack, a retired LA County Registrar of Voters who now works as a consultant for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the Pew Center on the States said that kind of math "doesn't make sense."

There are often cases of "undercounts" where voters don't' vote in all races, to the tune of about 10 percent in most races, McCormack said.

"It's made-up numbers," McCormack said.

McCormack underscored that registrars by law are required to report results from votes based on how many votes the candidate got and how many were cast."

"That's the standard whether you're running for president or a city council race. That's the official way that percentage of votes for a candidate is calculated. It's the legally established denominator."

While refusing to opine on Righeimer's math, OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley agreed with McCormack's description of the rationale for the current science of reporting election results and stood by the numbers his office reported.

When confronted with that fact, Righeimer acknowledged that his math might not be entirely clear. He then adjusted, saying "a better way to say it would be 64 percent of the voters chose me as one of their two choices."

He said he would call Lobdell and "have him change the wording."

However, unless they change the wording to "31.7 percent," the registrars and the former councilwoman say it will still be wrong.

$25 million

That's the amount city officials have repeatedly said will be the city's annual payment to fund employee pensions in 2015-2016. Righeimer makes a point of saying that the payment will take up a quarter of the city's budget.

Citing a city analysis, Righeimer and other officials have estimated that the city will pay 44.2 of police payroll on pensions in 2015-16.

But the city's analysis doesn't jibe with new pension estimates delivered to the city this past month by the California Public Employees' Retirement system. The payroll percentage estimated by CalPERS is lower, at 38.8 percent.

This translates to an annual estimated payment of $20 million, which would be an increase of $5 million, from the current payment of $15 million. That number is half the spike predicted by Righeimer.

"I work in bigger numbers of magnitude and staff comes in and drills it down," Righeimer said acknowledging the differences in pension payment estimates.

When pressed on his estimates, Righeimer noted that all pension estimates - including CalPERS are both political and financial calculations.

"They're all guessing anyways," he said of the actuarials.

Righeimer also said the exact amounts, $20 or $25 million, aren't that central to the budget debate. "It's still a massive amount, that's all I'm saying."

City officials have avoided interviews on the subject ever since they received the CalPERS estimates. However, they have retained an actuary -- John Bartel -- to explain the differences between the two estimates.

Bartel will make his presentation on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at a special City Council session where questions from the public will be allowed. Rick Santos, a senior pension actuary at CalPERS will also be present to answer questions and discuss the CalPERS projections.

9 percent

This is the percentage that City Councilwoman Wendy Leece claims that she an other council members pay toward their pension. In fact, she made a point of her contribution at a recent public forum.

But Leece's assertion shows that the city's problem math isn't limited to one side of the debate.

According to the city's own salary data released earlier this year, Leece doesn't pay anything toward her pension, which is based on her annual compensation of $30,976.89.

Same goes for her colleagues Eric Bever and Gary Monahan, who earn roughly the same salary (which is made up mainly by $11K in base pay and $17K in health benefits).

Righeimer and City Councilman Steven Mensinger both say they are not participating in the city's pension program.

Leece was correct in asserting that city workers are now paying into their pensions. General workers are paying 8.5 percent, while police are paying five percent and fire are paying six percent.

Many jurisdictions now are centering their budget negotiations on employees paying a larger portion of their salaries into their pensions in order to help cover the spikes in annual public pension payments.

Please contact Norberto Santana, Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

 

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