Stupidity Trumps Professionalism
You know, for a long, long time I thought that Costa Mesa City Councils made bonehead moves due to the time of evening - that as the clock moved steadily toward midnight the chances were greater that one or more of the members would make a stupid decision. Well, Tuesday night I learned that the hour of the day (or night) probably has nothing at all to do with it. Nope, Tuesday I learned that, as Forrest Gump said, "Stupid is as stupid does." More on that later.
At the Study Session that began at 4:30 Tuesday the council was scheduled to consider three items - the I-405 Improvement Project; the SR-55 Improvement Project and the Preliminary 2012-2013 Budget. They managed to only get to two of the three and barely covered the budget at all.
As anticipated, the first item on the agenda, the I-405 Improvement Project, drew a large crowd. At the beginning of the meeting I counted 50 residents and that number grew to around 70 before the discussion was completed nearly two hours later. In an unusual move, Mayor Eric Bever chose to permit public comments on this item both before and after the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) presentation. That may have been the last good decision he made Tuesday night.
ALTERNATIVE #3 IS WORST
No speaker spoke in favor of the plan as presented by the OCTA. Alternative #3, the change favored by the OCTA, was roundly criticized by residents, council members and city staff, as well. As several speakers observed, including council and staffers, that choice is all about funding. Many of those same speakers and others observed that Costa Mesans gain nothing from that particular plan. Councilman Steve Mensinger asked, "What's in it for us?" In fact, as Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer stated, when completed it would make it more inconvenient for him to use. Heck, that's reason enough to quash it, right? ;-)
INSULTS ADDED TO INJURY
The presentation, which probably was anticipated to last an hour, went on and on and on and the more the discussion progressed the more peeved the council members seemed to become. And that situation was exacerbated by two factors. First, OCTA CEO Will Kempton stepped up to apologize for having to depart early because it was his anniversary and he didn't want to be late for dinner. Then Niall Barnett, OCTA Project Manager, told the council and audience that there would be three Public Hearings in June on this issue - one each in Westminster, Rossmoor and Fountain Valley - but none in Costa Mesa! It seems the OCTA staff was unable to locate a venue that could accommodate 200 participants in Costa Mesa. That's hard to believe since several rooms at the Neighborhood Community Center would fit that bill. And, we have OCC and Vanguard University that might have a large enough venue, too. They're going back to the drawing board to try to make something work.
It was clear to me that the OCTA staff severely underestimated the opposition to their favored plan. We hope that better options are found before the OCTA Board hears this issue, sometime in July.
SR-55 SHOVED OUT
Because that issue dragged on, following a break Bever decided to shove the SR-55 Improvement Project off to a later Study Session and immediately launched the discussion of the third agenda item - the Preliminary 2012-2013 Budget - at 6:30.
HATCH STARTS WITH BAD NEWS
CEO Tom Hatch began the presentation - for which he and Finance and Information Technology Director Bobby Young now had a scant 30 minutes to make because a Special City Council Meeting had been called for 7:00 - by delivering what he apparently thought would be bad news. As it turned out, the real "bad news" was yet to come.
BUDGET NOT BALANCED, BUT CLOSE
Hatch began by telling the council, who had just received the document an hour or so earlier, that it isn't a balanced budget - it anticipates using just over $260,000 from the fund balance - but he anticipated achieving a balanced budget as subsequent meetings this month took place.
LOSS OF RDA FUNDS COULD DEEPEN DEFICIT
He then told them that it might be worse because it includes $800,000 in income anticipated from the now-defunct Redevelopment Agency. If it turns out that the state snatches that money back to Sacramento, then the projected deficit will be around $1million.
THE A.B.L.E. PAYOUT
He then told the council that $2.4 million included in the budget is from the dissolution of the A.B.L.E. helicopter program, and would come from the sale of the three aircraft and from funds from A.B.L.E. that will be returned to the city. He said it would be used for capital improvements.
The final bit of bad news he had for the council was that it did NOT meet the councils capital improvement wishes as described in the pie-in-the-sky (my term) 5-year plan. I've spoken about that before - Righeimer pulled numbers from the air earlier this year and, as I predicted, expects the staff to find budget dollars to meet it.
MORE MEETINGS THIS MONTH
Righeimer immediately pressed Hatch for a number - how big a gap is there? Hatch was unable to give a credible number, but Righeimer persisted and Hatch finally said there would probably be a $4-6 million shortfall, and that these issues could be discussed at meetings planned for May 17, 24 and 29 - and maybe more, too.
GIVING THE BUDGET SHORT SHRIFT
By this time it was now 6:45 and Bever was adamant that Young would have only 15 minutes to present the Preliminary Budget! I know for a fact that the staff has been working long and hard to try to come up with this budget presentation. It was, literally, hot off the presses. In fact, the staff report that he was going to present was still warm to the touch when it was distributed at the meeting.
BUDGET UP 15% - CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT UP 93%!
So, Young gave it his best shot but it wasn't good enough for the council... more in a minute. He began by telling the council that the preliminary All Funds Budget would be $132,387,846 - an increase from the current year budget of $17.5 million (15.20%). The Capital Improvement Budget is $20,146,936 - up $9.7 million (92.81%!).
SOME GOOD NEWS...
The General Fund Budget is projected at $101.4 million, up $6.7 million from last year. Young told the council that it includes the following items: Budget Contingency (that's Hatch's slush fund) - $1million; Unfunded Liability - $500,000; Building Modifications and Park Maintenance - $500,000; 15 Streets Paved by City Staff - $1.2 million; General Plan Update - $200,000 and the Addition of a City Labor Negotiator - $100,000. The council was not happy, but it got worse.
...AND BAD NEWS
Young then told them specifically what was NOT included in this budget. His short list included: Information Technology Improvements; Citywide Alley Improvements; Citywide Drainage Improvements; Fairview Park and Sports Fields Improvements and Unfunded Medical Reimbursement Liability. I could almost see the steam building in the heads of some of the council members.
ANOTHER RIGHEIMER RANT
Finally Righeimer just blew a gasket. He went on one of his now-predictable rants complaining that all the items on his wish list (my term) were not in the budget - that staff just made a choice not to include them, and said, among other things, "This is not what the council asked for. We're not asking you to balance the budget..." He went on to say, "What I want to see in this budget, before we come back, going forward, is all the items in there and this council can decide what has to be taken out of there, not staff saying we have a two or three hundred thousand dollar problem."
CUTTING YOUNG OFF AT THE KNEES
So, Bever gave Young another two minutes - literally - then slammed the door on him and immediately adjourned the Study Session and convened the Special Council meeting - a closed session for labor negotiations. It was truly bizarre, since the budget is the foundational document for all municipal activities. Young probably needed another ten minutes, but was cut off at the knees. This is the kind of judgment we see these days...
BEVER BOTCHES IT UP
As it turns out, that Special Meeting Bever was so paranoid about opening at 7:00 sharp could have been delayed as long as the council wanted. At least, that's what contract City Attorney Tom Duarte told them when asked. It seems that the real problem was a scheduling issue with the labor negotiator! And then Bever botched up the opening of the meeting. He failed to have the item read into the record, didn't take roll, didn't hold the pledge of allegiance to the flag and was saved a smidgen of embarrassment when acting Deputy City Clerk Christine Cordon asked if she could read the item into the record. And all this happened around 7:15 - not midnight. So, you see - the hour of the day alone does not bring out the incompetence of our leaders - they act stupid at any time of day or night. Geez, do we deserve better than this!
As I've mentioned before, May is a VERY busy month. We have a council meeting on Tuesday, May 15th, with what should be a packed agenda. Then, on Thursday, May 17th, we have another Study Session that will include Interim Fire Chief Tom Arnold's presentation of a possible re-organization of the Fire Department AND more budget drama. At least two more budget meetings are scheduled this month, on the 24th and 29th. More will be scheduled if necessary. As I said, a busy month...