No Surprises - A Long And Painful Study Session
Well, that normal "one hour" meeting ended up taking almost three! And, while most council study sessions play to a crowd of, maybe, a half dozen people, this one was attended by at least 85 people at peak attendance - most of whom were employees. The decision to hold the meeting in council chambers instead of the cramped quarters in Conference Room 1A proved to be a good choice.
MONAHAN STEPS UP - KINDA
Following a brief period of public comments, in which budget gadfly Judi Berry told the council that she remained concerned that the City Attorney's office was blowing through an average of $100,000 per month, Mayor Gary Monahan set the tone with his opening remarks. He told us we were "going see some very familiar and some very new financial facts and figures. Some will be very disturbing. As we move forward with our eyes on a fiscally-solvent five year plan we will need to recognize and reverse some of the financial trends we have been dealing with the past few years. It's not a surprise, but "business as usual" will not be sustainable. Having been on this city council twelve of the last fourteen years, I personally bear much responsibility for actions taken over those years. Suffice it to say that some of these actions have directly led to some of our difficulties that we now face...." He went on to compare Costa Mesa to Ronald Reagan's "shining city on the hill" and told the assembled throng that we would all have to pull together.
CITY HIRES SOME HELP FOR HATCH
Tom Hatch, City Manager-in-waiting, announced that he's actually going to have some help following Allan Roeder's retirement in a couple weeks. Terry Matz, former City Manager in Stanton and retired Assistant City Manager from Brea, will be working part time - 15 to 20 hours per week - in the City Manager's office to help with the transition and to get the city over it's financial hump. This, of course, is great news. Hatch is very good, but is going to need a lot of help...
MIXED MESSAGES CREATES APPREHENSION
Let me make an editorial comment on the meeting in general before going on to specifics. We heard a lot of numbers - many of them not new - and a lot of gloom and doom mixed with the occasional attempt at cheer leading. I heard nothing that told me this new council was not intent in a major restructuring of the city using layoffs, outsourcing and complete elimination of departments and services - quite the contrary. For example, in response to a question from Wendy Leece for clarification of his definition of just what "outsourcing" meant in the context of his discussion, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said, "I think we have to look at every duty that the city does that can be done from an outside source, not done by a city employee." Monahan subsequently said, "I don't want anyone to take away a goal that we want to outsource the entire city." Since those two very divergent statements were made by the top two elected officials - the two members of the Budget Work Group - within minutes of each other, it's easy to understand just why there is apprehension among many members of the city staff.
TILLING THE SOIL FOR BROWN ACT VIOLATIONS
A little later Righeimer told the audience that he was already reaching out to department heads, looking for ways to change operations and to improve the way things are done. He encouraged the employees present to let him or any other member of the City Council know if they have ideas about the way things can be improved. That, of course, brings up the issue of potential Brown Act violations. You will recall that City Manager Allan Roeder cautioned the council at their last regular meeting that the formation of sub-committees makes the possibilities of Brown Act violations much more possible. Righeimer's suggestion is a perfect example of how we could be getting into trouble in this process.
MENSINGER THE IMPATIENT
At the very end Steve Mensinger told the audience and the council that he had already reached out to members of County government about meeting to discuss a joint powers authority for airborne law enforcement. I find myself wondering if this is the first of many unilateral initiatives he's going to launch himself on in the future? Remember my concern about this council's impatience? There you go...
ABLE MAY HAVE SOME AVAILABLE CASH
The discussion about ABLE was enlightening. You can read the staff report at the link I provided in my previous entry, but one tidbit gleaned from the discussion with Commander Tim Starn, who heads up ABLE, was that the "Equipment Replacement Fund" segment of ABLE's budget may be $1 million over what would be necessary to purchase a new helicopter. I found myself wondering if that chunk of cash could be tapped immediately to help balance our current budget and keep us from using Fund Balance. If we had to split that number with Newport Beach it would give us another half-million to work with. It all may be moot since the staff report tells us that Righeimer and Monahan are recommending the dissolution of ABLE. Contractual obligations will require that some partners be given 120 day notice if that happens. That means notices must be sent by the end of the month. Unless something miraculous happens in the next week I fear we are soon to be without the force multiplier that ABLE represents in our law enforcement efforts. Criminals will sleep more soundly...
STRUMMIN' THE "CASH SHORTFALL" BACK BEAT
One message that kept getting a lot of play at this meeting was the fact that the City is almost out of cash. Righeimer used it as the back beat to several of his messages. Based on information provided by Budget and Research Officer Bobby Young, it was posited that in November - before we receive our Property Tax revenue from the State - we could be down to $5 million in cash reserves. However, as I understood the discussion, that doesn't take into account the emergency reserve of $14.125 million nor the $10.8 million loan to the Redevelopment Agency. I'm not trying to make light of what appears to be a "cash" problem, but there are some folks who will hear that $5 million number and immediately begin to hyperventilate.
REDEVELOPMENT AGENCY - AN ENIGMA
Speaking of which, the discussion of the future of the Costa Mesa Redevelopment Agency was interesting. Since nobody really knows just what old/new Governor Jerry Brown has in mind for redevelopment agencies it's difficult to plan. However, much discussion was given over to the wisdom, or lack thereof, of having the Redevelopment Agency repay the $10.8 million loan to the City by refinancing that amount in today's market. Eric Bever asked a question that's been rattling around in my head, too. He wanted to know just who would be lending money to ANY redevelopment agency in light of the Governor's rumblings about folding them up and re-claiming the cash? I never did near a good answer to that question.
TWO OPEN SLOTS SEEM LOST, AND...
It seems inevitable that the Police Department will soon lose the two officer positions it's been holding open for several months. While that's irritating but understandable, more disconcerting for me is the fact that the new, impatient council seems determined to micro-manage every aspect of city government by taking any flexibility out of the hands of managers. For example, it has long been city practice to leave positions open when they occur until and unless the managers and department heads can justify the need to re-fill them. This provides a very significant level of management flexibility and actually has been an effective budget management tool. It seemed to me, based on the discussion, that Righeimer and Mensinger were eager to have EVERY vacancy immediately dropped from the roles as they occur and thereby force managers and department heads to jump through unnecessary hoops to later fill them.
PENSION NUMBERS ARE STAGGERING
The discussion of CalPERS numbers - future rates and unfunded liability - was dismal. Young provided graphic information that only seemed to fuel the fire in the bellies of the pension reform cabal on the council. They were not dissuaded by the facts of recent employee participation in the pension contributions, seeing only the bleakest possible downside. In fairness, the numbers are staggering and the charts that showed recent climbs in liabilities that looked like a Space Shuttle launch only emphasized that point. There is no doubt in my mind that Young's presentation is going to form the cornerstone of near-term attacks on employee retirement plans. The easiest way to solve those "problems", of course, is to get rid of the employees who are earning them. I saw nothing in the discussions that gave me hope that negotiations were planned in the near future. I think it will take a major initiative by the employee organizations to get this council to the table.
In her formal presentation of the "Noticing" requirements for layoffs and/or outsourcing she told the crowd and council that in the case of Layoffs and complete elimination of services a 30 day notice is required and conferences with the bargaining units must be held regarding potential reorganization. In the case of outsourcing a 6 months notice is required. See above for my comments on outsourcing.
SNOW BALL OUT OF CONTROL
I close tonight with a heavy heart. While Gary Monahan attempted to be a cheerleader, encouraging everyone to participate in problem-solving, it was clear that "solutions" are already in the works. Several of these issues will appear on a Council agenda soon - some as soon as next Tuesday. This haste is unprecedented and makes me very nervous. It seems to me that this council is like a snowball rolling down hill - it's gaining momentum and seems destined to roll over everything in the way. At the close of the meeting I found not a single employee who felt positively about what they had heard. Instead several commented to me and others around me that they were more concerned than before the meeting. I guess only time will tell...