Costa Mesa Council Cancels Firefighters’ Layoff Notices

The Costa Mesa Civic Center. (Photo credit: City of Costa Mesa)

The Costa Mesa Civic Center. (Photo credit: City of Costa Mesa)

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The Costa Mesa City Council took a big step back in its more than yearlong outsourcing effort Tuesday by voting to keep the city’s fire department intact rather than attempting to outsource fire services.

Fire Department employees received 87 of the more than 200 layoff notices still in effect that were originally issued by the city in March 2011. The City Council had considered contracting with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) to take over the city’s fire services. After reviewing its proposal, however, the city determined it could save much more by restructuring its existing department.

“If we did what OCFA wanted to do, they would save us over five years $6.6 million,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer. “If we did it ourselves we’d save $15.75 million.”

For months the city tried to find another contractor at a lower cost but received no proposals.

Last night’s move, made by unanimous vote and with support from every resident who spoke on the issue, was the council’s first formal decision on whether to contract for a city service after it began an unprecedented outsourcing effort last spring.

The controversial plan has made for many long City Council meetings, with residents often criticizing the council or asking it to change course. But on Tuesday night, both supporters and critics endorsed the council’s move.

Council supporter Jim Fitzpatrick encouraged city leaders to keep the fire department and make it more effective. The next speaker, who typically disagrees with the council on outsourcing issues, noted his agreement.

“Well, this is interesting. I’m Perry Valentine, and I agree with the previous speaker,” said Valentine. “Seriously, I do appreciate the council’s decision.”

Costa Mesa now plans to use the OCFA’s proposal as a model for cutting costs within the department while improving service. The first discussion is scheduled for May 8.

The OCFA proposal called for six fewer firefighters per shift than the city uses — a reduction by one-fifth from Costa Mesa’s 29 on-duty members at any given time. City leaders also said the county saves costs by using smaller vehicles on medical calls.

Councilman Gary Monahan said he is interested in having new fire department hires pay more into their retirement benefits with a higher retirement age and a lower pension, something the city’s nonsafety employees union has agreed to.

City resident Flo Martin made an impassioned plea to reduce firefighters’ overtime.

Ten years ago, OCFA paramedics revived Martin’s son from a cardiac arrest. As a token of her appreciation, Martin began bringing the paramedics milk and cookies each anniversary of the incident. Then in September 2010, one of the paramedics, Jim Owen, died on the job from the same cardiac condition that afflicted her son.

Martin said that Owen, who was known as “Jimmy Overtime,” had worked the equivalent of 29 years of overtime and was weeks away from retirement.

“In this case, overtime killed,” said Martin, who asked that the council empower its fire chief to eliminate overtime. “We don’t want to see another firefighter go down the way J.O. did.”

Responding to Martin’s concerns, Monahan said changing the pension arrangement for new hires could ultimately eliminate the large amount of overtime firefighters work by allowing the city to hire more fire staff.

Until last night, firefighters represented about 42 percent of Costa Mesa’s layoff notices. The rest are still in effect, with the council set to consider proposals next month for outsourcing up to seven city services. The city, however, is currently restrained by a court order from carrying out any outsourcing to private companies.

Also on Tuesday, the City Council approved a ban on convicted sex offenders in city parks and on city sports facilities. The law makes it a misdemeanor to enter these areas and follows similar laws recently enacted in several Orange County cities.

The effort is spearheaded by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who told the council at Tuesday’s meeting that the law was brought on by concern from parents, including one who saw a sex offender videotaping in a park.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/nicholasgerda.

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