While many jurisdictions face tight budgets this year, Costa Mesa officials on Tuesday night drew an ideological line in the sand, rarely seen at the local level, voting 4-1 to study privatizing nearly half the city’s operations.
On the potential chopping block is a vast menu of city services: fire protection, jail services, street sweeping, IT services, building inspections, payroll services animal control and maintenance for a slew of services like parks, streets, medians and vehicles.
In addition to the study, the council action authorized the city to issue hundreds of layoff notices to its employees — something city officials say state law requires them to do even when they are just considering a privatization plan.
The City Council Chambers was packed with participants until the early morning hours in the first round of what promises to be a Battle Royale over what government should look like in this town of 117,000 people.
The council’s newest Republican member, Jim Righeimer, announced to the public on Tuesday night that the privatization bid is the direct result of last November’s election. They won, Righeimer said, and this is what they told the public they would get.
Sitting quietly in the audience were a host of representatives from private ambulance and street sweeping companies — operations that would benefit greatly if the city goes ahead with a privatization experiment.
Sitting not so quietly were nearly 200 Costa Mesa public workers along with union officials from throughout the county who clapped and yelled throughout the hours-long meeting.
The public workers accused the council of not only having ideological but direct profit motives. That drew a direct rebuke from Righeimer who hotly denied any direct profit motive.
Yet, in a tacit acknowledgement of the tough political battles to come on the issue, Righeimer told the crowd, “please do not think anybody is trifling with your job.”
Republican leaders on the council told the crowd that the city’s spiking annual pension payments — which will total about $15 million this year and make up 16 percent of the city’s $93 million budget — were the main reason forcing the issue.
Mayor Gary Monahan said the city faces a $1.4 million deficit in the current fiscal year even after implementing a series of cuts, which have already included layoffs. He said that the city could be facing insolvency by the fall.
Monahan called on employees to offer up ideas about how to save money at the city.
Yet employee negotiators like Billy Folsom — with the Costa Mesa City Employees Association — told the council members that they had forwarded hundreds of ideas for saving money during negotiations and council members ignored every single one.
The city’s paramedic coordinator also told council members it was stunning that they would study privatizing something like paramedic services without asking their own fire department for their opinion.
Even one Republican member of the council, Wendy Leece, severely criticized her colleagues while casting the lone dissenting vote.
Leece said the new council majority’s position was extreme and destructive to the goodwill generated with employees in recent years as more and more cuts have been implemented.
“I am tired of the demonization of our employees,” Leece said.
Righeimer showed charts detailing the city’s pension payments skyrocketing to $25 million in upcoming years. However, Leece pushed city staff to confirm publicly that those numbers were simply projections calculated by city staff themselves.
Others in the audience, like former Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis, told council members they had a particularly Republican disease. They’re running a business paying 2011-era wages financed by 1975-era revenues, Genis said.
The public comment period was dominated by union members — nearly every speaker said the privatization of nearly 18 different departments were too radical and would destroy the city’s services for residents.
Righeimer took straight aim at the employees, calling them “tone deaf.”
“There’s 116,000 people in this city, that in November made a clear mandate about what this city would do: balance it’s budget,” Righeimer said.
“We’d love to slow down,” he said. “But the world works on a calendar and a clock. On July 1, we have a new budget.”
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