The Costa Mesa City Council early Wednesday morning approved a $132.7-million budget for the coming fiscal year that lays off four employees and doubles spending on city infrastructure, which some members say has fallen by the wayside in recent years.
The $20.7 million to be spent on streets, alleys, sports fields, parks and other projects is a crucial investment in the city’s future, members of the council majority said. The projects could even help reduce the crime rate, they added.
The 4-1 budget vote was expected, with members of the council majority — Mayor Eric Bever and Councilmen Jim Righeimer, Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan — voting in favor and Councilwoman Wendy Leece dissenting.
“When I’m talking about the $20 million, it’s not like we’re talking about an offramp that we’re getting money from CalTrans for. We’re talking about local city streets, local parks, drainage issues and all sorts of problems,” said Righeimer.
He added that it would be the second consecutive year in which no money would be taken from the city’s general fund reserve in order to balance the budget.
Several residents in the audience concurred with the council on the need to increase spending on city infrastructure, but there were sharp disagreements over proposed layoffs that came about after city leaders added additional infrastructure projects to the budget.
The layoffs would include office specialists in the building division, one specialist in the city clerk’s office and one computer systems manager. CEO Tom Hatch said the four workers are scheduled to receive a formal 30-day layoff notice and were placed on administrative leave last week.
The city estimates that these layoffs and the elimination of 11 unfilled positions will save $402,000 over the next fiscal year.
Some residents at Monday's meeting questioned how the staff cuts would affect service levels, and Helen Nenadal, president of the general city employees union, asked the council to consider alternatives to the layoffs.
“Just as we have gone above and beyond for the city, would you not think it’s [too] much to ask for the city to consider all options before putting us out on the street?” Nenadal said.
Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Association, also warned that if the city outsources those employees’ work to the private sector, it could violate a preliminary court injunction.
Righeimer countered with a criticism of the level of benefits the union’s workers receive, which include, he said, 12 sick days per year and pensions that can rise to 95 percent of pay. He said the four laid-off employees would be highly employable.
Leece, the sole vote against the final budget proposal, questioned the need for layoffs and said she’d like $500,000 designated for buying up blighted motels to instead pay for six new police officers.
“We are doing this, and we are not analyzing how it’s impacting our services. I think we’re being reckless and foolhardy,” said Leece.
Bever cut off Leece after three minutes, calling her comments “a ramble,” to gasps from a few remaining audience members at the early-morning hour. Earlier in the council discussion of the budget, Righeimer was allowed to speak in support of the financial plan for five minutes without interruption.
In other business related to the budget, the City Council authorized outsourcing of graphic design to a private company and printing services to the county government. City spokesman Bill Lobdell estimated those items would save the city $44,000 next year.
In an effort to avoid violating a court order forbidding outsourcing to the private sector, the city doesn’t plan to lay off any graphic design employees. They will seek the union’s and possibly the court's permission before signing its contract with the Newport Beach-based graphic design firm We The Creative.
Both decisions to outsource came on a 4-1 vote, with Leece opposing.