For about 10 minutes Tuesday night, Costa Mesa's 2011-2012 budget was balanced.
CEO Tom Hatch announced to the City Council that he had removed a $3.5-million deficit from the budget by reorganizing the police department and instituting a series of budget tweaks.
Then, just minutes after Hatch finished, his budget came apart to the tune of a nearly $3-million deficit.
City Councilman Jim Righeimer told Hatch that his budget was still full of bureaucratic tricks.
The councilman told the CEO that his sales tax estimates were too rosy and probably off by $400,000. Then he said the current budget doesn't adequately account for vehicle replacement, which would add another $1.5 million to the total. And then there's the additional $1 million needed as a contingency.
"I don't know of any business that doesn't have a contingency," Righeimer said.
Righeimer's pushback was not surprising, given the battle lines drawn in Costa Mesa during this budget season. The Righeimer-led City Council majority has been pushing for a massive outsourcing plan to fix what they say is a budget that is structurally out of balance, mainly because of public employee pensions.
Others — most notably union leaders — have argued that the council majority is exaggerating the city's budget woes for ideological reasons.
At one point during Tuesday's meeting, Righeimer gave Hatch an idea of where to find the extra money, pointing out that the city had $4.1 million slated in salaries for vacant jobs.
Many city departments keep vacant jobs on their books, which provides a sort of automatic reserve for other projects. For example, many of the consultant studies being conducted by the city have been funded with the savings from vacant jobs, such as the city finance director.
Righeimer told Hatch to come back next week with a new set of ideas for producing a balanced budget.
— NORBERTO SANTANA JR.