Holding Their ‘Feet to the Fire’ in Costa Mesa

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Monday, April 18, 2011 | Public budgets are inherently political documents.

That’s because they are, at their most elemental, a long list of priorities. Most of the budget battles that grip and sometimes paralyze governments each year at the city, state and national levels are essentially jockeying over whose set of priorities will win out.

When money gets tight, like it is now, budget fights become fiercer and the combatants resort to more extreme measures. Consider the effort to end collective bargaining in Wisconsin, the threatened government shutdown in Washington, D.C. and the ongoing ugliness in Sacramento.

And then there is Costa Mesa, where the local budget has become a national story.

A new City Council majority — closely allied to Orange County’s Republican power structure — wants to outsource nearly half the city’s services, which could lead to layoffs for more than 200 city workers.

That has run into strong opposition from labor groups, which have funded an extensive television and internet ad campaign against the Council majority. It also seems that statewide labor groups and some community activists are beginning to coalesce around the Costa Mesa issue.

The casualties of this battle are already far greater than anyone expected. Huy Pham, a 29-year old city maintenance worker, jumped to his death from the roof of City Hall on the day he was to receive his six-month layoff notice.

Mayor Gary Monahan was severely criticized for staying at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at his bar, rather than going to City Hall, in the immediate aftermath of Pham’s suicide. He has since apologized for his actions that day.

Then, this past weekend, a vandal threw a rock through the window of Monahan’s bar. Monahan feels he’s being targeted for his actions as mayor and is now critical of the police investigation into the incident.

Yet, despite all of this attention to Costa Mesa and pledges of transparency by city leaders, many basic questions about the city’s finances remain unanswered.

Earlier this year, Monahan and Councilman Righeimer formed a two-person council budget subcommittee and emerged with stark budget projections and the massive outsourcing proposal.

In particular, Righeimer and Monahan told the City Council that the costs of pensions were going to swell to more than $25 million by 2015, taking up more than a quarter of the city’s budget. Monahan said the city’s reserves were so low, $5 million last November, that insolvency was potentially on the horizon this fall.

But there are many details about the budget that city officials have not revealed.

With the aim of fleshing out these all-important details, Voice of OC has joined the Orange County Register, the Daily Pilot and the Newport Beach Independent in hosting the “Feet to the Fire” forum tonight.

Among the questions and issues:

  • What is the true nature of the projected $5 to $15 million budget gap in next year’s fiscal year budget? For example, many criticize Righeimer’s soaring pension estimates as wrong and ideologically-influenced. In addition, when citing the larger deficit city officials admit that includes long-delayed capital improvements, which raises more questions about the ideological nature of the projections.
  • Despite public pledges of transparency, city officials in their latest press release still point to a $5 million budget gap for next year. But they refuse to give details on the specifics.
  • There are myriad questions about such a massive outsourcing – involving 17 different departments at one time – would be managed to avoid conflicts of interest – and whether it’s a good deal for the public.

The session, held tonight at the Costa Mesa Community Center between 7 and 9 p.m., is the first of several in the coming months that will seek to engage residents in an unprecedented manner on their municipal budget.

Journalists participating in the event include OC Register columnist and moderator Barbara Venezia, OC Register columnist Frank Mickadeit, Daily Pilot editor John Canalis, Newport Beach Independent editor Roger Bloom and me, Norberto Santana, Jr., editor-in-chief of Voice of OC.

Righeimer and Councilwoman Wendy Leece – who are on opposite sides of the outsourcing debate – will be joined by Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino and Colin McCarthy, president of the Costa Mesa Taxpayers Association.

This will be the first of several open forums in the next few months where key questions will be posed to city officials before the next steps are taken on the budget.

City officials are also hosting a special budget workshop on April 26 where the public will be able to ask questions. The city’s own formal budget hearings begin on May 10.

Let the light shine in.

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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