COSTA MESA — Last night the opposing sides in the debate over outsourcing of Costa Mesa City Services were brought together at the Costa Mesa Community Center to answer the question; “Should Costa Mesa be run like a business?” All sides in the debate seemed to be in agreement that business principles have a role in the management of any city budget. However that agreement led me to the conclusion that the positions advocated by Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Costa Mesa Taxpayers Association President Colin McCarthy are far removed from any sound principles I have ever seen.
The forum, hosted by columnist Barbara Venezia, pitted Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berarding, Costa Mesa Council Members Jim Righeimer and Wendy Leece, and Costa Mesa Taxpayers Association President Colin McCarthy against John Canalis of the Daily Pilot, Frank Mikadeit of the OC Register, Norberto Santana of Voice Of OC, and Roger Bloom of the Newport Beach Independent. The answers, as expected, came predominantly from the political play books of both sides.
Righeimer started off by answering the question of whether or not there is a budget crisis facing the city that requires the outsourcing of city services. His rationale was less than sound as he cited already discredited projections of pension costs to claim there was. He claimed that unions were unwilling to negotiate necessary savings and that the personnel costs for the city are consuming so much of the city budget that needed repairs and maintenance are not being performed.
Righeimer claimed that the city had “blown through” a $35 million rainy day fund, leaving the city on the verge of financial default. He backed his theory up by pointing to the fact that cash on hand in November /December last year was at $5 million, leaving the city on the verge of financial collapse in his opinion. Councilwoman Leece would have nothing of that argument reminding him that the cash on hand amount was that low because property tax revenues had not yet come in.
Leece argued that the city had previously gained concessions from their employees that significantly reduced the amount of reserves (Rainy Day Fund) that were needed to address shortfalls due to the current economic conditions. She argued that if not for the fact that Righeimer and his allies on the council had given notice to most city staff members other than police officers that their jobs would be outsourced in September, similar concessions would have been likely. “We’re not out of money. The sky is not falling. There is a plan,” Leece said.
Righeimer challenged previous council deliberations about the budget as being negotiated out of fear. That the Leece and others were using the fear of losing quality of life or quality of services as the basis for their decisions. “We must stop budgeting out of fear,” Righeimer said.
Funny he should say that since the entire strategy he and his colleagues are using is born out of FEAR. Fear of pension liabilities, fear of insolvency, fear of higher taxes, fear of layoff in tough economic times, fear based upon speculation and not one shread of evidence. Now that’s negotiation out of fear.
OCEA’s Berardino hammered on his point that the employees have been willing to work with the city to negotiate rational solutions to the current crisis. But he wasn’t willing to negotiate at the end af the barrel of a loaded political agenda. “This is advancing a political agenda,” he said. “Politicians outsource in order to gain favor with their political supporters… and they get political contributions from the people they give contracts to.”
Berardino pointed out that the entire plan to outsource virtually all city services was hatched in secret by the majority of the Council using their personal email accounts. Righeimer’s response, other than challenging Berardino to reveal how much OCEA has contributed to the Repair Costa Mesa campaign, was a “what you gonna do about it” smirk.
The hottest exchange of the evening erupted when Righeimer responded to a question from Voice of Orange County’s Norberto Santana about transparency by challenging Santana saying “Let’s have a little transparency. This is your boss here,” pointing to Berardino. While OCEA did provide initial seed money for the nonprofit Voice of OC, they are not the primary source of funding for the organization.
Earlier in the evening Righeimer indicated some willingness to place a value on institutional memory of city workers. He admitted that in his business that he values that experience at 20% or more of salary. But he calimed there was a limit to how high he was willing to go. Righeimer did ultimatly agree that he would be willing to negotiate with city workers over budget shortfalls. “I’m willing to negotiate,” Righeimer said. “Once the all the proposals are in.” Simply put, he is only willing to negotiate under the condition that the city workers negotiate their contracts, with only one option, beat the lowest bidder for your job, or your out.
When the proposals are all in, I wonder where he will draw that line?
In response to the question of whether the city of Costa Mesa should be run like a business, I learned that Righeimer claims the answer is yes, but in practice he doesn’t follow the theory. Unless you call making decisions based upon political ideology, without any facts, research, study, or rational deliberation sound business theory.