Much has been said and written about Costa Mesa employee pensions over the past couple years. The "dire" condition of our unfunded pension liability has been the cornerstone of much of what Mayor Jovial Jim Righeimer has tried to do since he took office two years ago. If you listened to him you'd think our world as we know it was coming to an end - that our streets would turn to cobblestones, our playing fields into gravel pits and our parks into weed-filled pastures unless we "solved" the pension problem. To hear him talk you'd think our fire fighting force will be reduced to horse-drawn hand pumpers and our police service would resemble - wait for it - Mayberry.
NUMBERS, NUMBERS, NUMBERS
Over the past few years the city has provided us with the testimony of "experts" in the field to attempt to assist Finance and Information Technology Director Bobby Young in making the almost incomprehensible mountain of data understandable. We've heard numbers thrown around in the hundreds of millions of dollars. At one point we were told by consultant John Bartel that our then-current unfunded liability of around $200 million payable over 30 years would turn into an immediate due-upon-demand bill of over $350 million if we opted out of CalPERS.
MONEY DOWN THE DRAIN?
Last week Stanford University professor Joe Nation - a former Democratic politician who got a real job after failing to be re-elected - told us in clear, unambiguous terms about our pension situation. At the end of his presentation and the short one that followed by Young, Righeimer made a short speech in which he told us clearly that he was not interested in sending additional money to CalPERS to pay down the unfunded liability. I quoted him thus:
"There's no way this is going to get paid off. It can't be paid off. That's another 15-18 million dollars a year. There's going to have to be some movement from the state legislature and PERS to go ahead and change benefits going forward for existing employees. That will not happen in the State of California until it crashes." He went on to say, "The situation is 'Where is Costa Mesa going to be when that happens?' and I, for one, am not interested in giving additional payments to PERS. I don't mind putting it aside somewhere else, but I can't imagine sending them an additional 10-15 million dollars a year when it can just disappear tomorrow and we'll be tossed into the same category with everyone else."
I guess his presumption is that CalPERS is doomed to failure because the state legislature and the CalPERS board are dominated by those nasty Democrats - liberals who will simply let it self-destruct before doing anything - and he didn't want to send any additional monies into that black hole. I don't know, maybe he's correct, but it's hard for me to imagine any responsible group letting that happen without drastic action - even a bunch of "nasty Democrats".
Some might interpret Righeimer's comments as more political rhetoric. They might be right. After all, if a guy's going to run for higher office he needs a plank in his campaign platform that is broader than little old Costa Mesa. His pal and OCGOP honcho Scott Baugh has stated that our city is "Ground Zero" for state-wide pension reform.
A GREAT SITE
The pension numbers make my head hurt, but Communication Director Bill Lobell and Young have put together a site where you can find every answer to every question you might have about Costa Mesa pensions, HERE. It also includes a link, HERE, to a letter Young sent to the council in December that capsulizes much of that good information. The chart below is taken from that letter. (click on image to enlarge)