Thursday, April 30, 2009

New Fees On Council Agenda

The agenda for Tuesday's Costa Mesa City Council meeting is now available for viewing, HERE. It's full of stuff that could generate some significant resident interest - if they're paying attention.


For example, there are three items submitted by the Fire Department that are revenue-generators at a time when we certainly do need new sources of income. However, each of these items reach directly into the pockets of Costa Mesa residents for "fees" at a time when most ca
n probably not afford them.

Emergency Medical Services - This fee, which will now charge residents and non-residents alike, is supposed to generate $543,900 in additional revenue to the city by charging fees for services provided when a person receives medical attention and is transported by an ambulance. Currently, residents don't pay these fees. This fee is kind of like picking your pocket as you lay bloodied and battered on the gurney.

Fire Department Fire Prevention Fees - These fees, to be assessed against businesses who receive fire prevention visits by members of the Fire Department, are supposed to generate an additional $500,000 in revenue to the city. Theoretically, these fees will represent 100% cost recovery for providing these services - which businesses don't have an option to accept or decline. The firefighters just wander in, check out your business, then send you a bill.

Fire Department Costs Recovery Program - These nifty new fees will supposedly generate more than $180,000 in new revenues for the city. They cover the costs of responding to an automobile accident within our city and could really mount up if, for example, the scene of the accident isn't promptly cleared by the police in attendance. They are based in great part by the kind of vehicle that responds, and are charged for increments of an hour, with 15 minutes being the shortest time. The proposal says we will contract with an outfit called EF Recovery, who has apparently convinced our staff that, for 14% of the fees collected, can recover 98.5% of such insured fees. I went to the web site for this company and there is absolutely nothing there that indicates they are even in this business. On their site they appear to be marketers of consumables used at accident sites and otherwise by public safety organizations. It makes me curious about their claim of 98.5% success rate when they don't even mention being in this business on their site.

So, these new ordinances - with which the Fire Department will stick their hands directly into the pockets of residents - are projected to generate around $1.2 million in additional revenues for the city beginning July 1, 2009.

Last July 15th, during their deliberations of the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) and Business License Fees, the city council decided to "receive and file" the proposal to put those two items on the ballot for the residents to consider. As a result, we missed the boat for another two years before either item can be considered again. The short-sighted council missed the chance to increase the TOT by a couple points - which would still have left Costa Mesa among the lowest in the state - and thereby probably cost us an estimated $2 million in increased revenue. Had the voters approved that modest change we would not be looking at having our pockets picked with these new fees. The TOT affects only visitors to our city, not the residents. And, there was no one from the hospitality community that spoke against a possible increase in the TOT last year.

Our Business License Fees are laughably low. As councilwoman Katrina Foley mentioned during a recent meeting, her small law firm in Newport Beach pays more for it's business license than Nordstrom does at South Coast Plaza! Even a modest adjustment to those fees would have generated significant increases in revenue for our city. Again, no one from the business community spoke on this subject last year.


So, once again the narrow-minded, lame-brained knee-jerk majority on the city council has demonstrated clearly why it's important to elect people to the council that have more than half a brain between them. By digging in their heels in their anti-tax posture they have caused great harm to the residents of our city.

Also coming before the council Tuesday are some items that generated a lot of interest within the community. It will be interesting to see who shows up Tuesday to speak on them this time around. Those items are:

Off-street Parking Standards
Residential Driveway Widths
Modifications to our Fireworks Ordinance making offenses administrative citations
The bogus and inconsequential 5% pay reduction for the city council members - which cannot take effect until after the 2010 elections.

I wonder how many passionate residents will show up Tuesday night to discuss these issues.

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Anonymous Rob Dickson said...

Geoff, the Fire Department fees still need to be approved by the Council. I hope that they do not approve them. With 74% of our budget going to personnel costs, including lavish retirement benefits not enjoyed by the vast majority of citizens, there is no way we should compund the suffering of someone involved in a automobile accident or medical emergency by charging them fees. Fire and police services should ALWAYS be free for residents.

With salaries and benefits going up, even when the city has to tap into reserves to keep functioning, coming to the council to suggest such fees in order to maintain their own salaries and benefits is borderline unconscionable.

We need fire fighters who are well-paid and who have secure retirements. They literally save lives and put their lives on the line for us. Their loyalty should be to the residents of Costa Mesa, and they should recognize when economic times require a collective sacrifice. They should negotiate giving some concessions to the city to help in these times, contingent upon getting them back when the economy bounces back.

They should NOT be suggesting fees for services which are why they exist in the first place. What next, fees for putting out fires?

5/01/2009 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger The Pot Stirrer said...

Rob, I was asking myself the very same question. Don't get me wrong.. I admire and appreciate our fire fighters. They're doing 50% more work with the same head count from 17 years ago! The problem is the council and it's unwillingness to let the voters decide the TOT and Business License fee issue via the ballot.

5/01/2009 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Rob Dickson said...

Geoff, agreed about putting increases in the TOT and business license tax on the ballot, provided that mechanism isn't exorbitantly expensive. I think they'll get shot down in flames.

Absent those funding sources, we must work within our means. The Costa Mesa employee associations need to start actively working to close the busget gap. The hard truth is this - with 74% of the budget in their hands, the savings must come from them.

5/01/2009 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger CMTRUTH said...

Police and Fire put their life on the line day in and day out unlike the vast majority of citizens.

5/02/2009 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger The Pot Stirrer said...

CM TRUTH, I doubt anyone will dispute the nature of the work done by public safety members on our behalf. I sure don't! My best friend was a cop for 31 years - I have a pretty good understanding of the stress involved in police work and the dangers involved. That's not the question here.

In my view, there are several points:

First, the city is at a crisis point with the budget, which must be solved. We've got slightly less than two months in which to resolve it. As Rob has pointed out many times, the bulk of the budget is in wages and benefits, so that's where some adjustments must be made - in addition to others. If the public safety unions dig their heels in and refuse to negotiate until the fall they force the city into balancing the budget by cutting jobs - there is no option.

Second, 4/5ths of the current council refused to let the voters decide whether the TOT and Business License fees should be increased last year. On July 15th they voted to "receive and file" the issue, effectively quashing any chance for them to appear on the ballot. The next time they can appear on the ballot is 2010 unless there is a groundswell of public support for an initiative and special election - very costly.

Third, some of the issues on the agenda Tuesday had been discussed a couple years ago, including a subscription program for EMS, and were rejected. Once again, short-sightedness by the council.

The items proposed by the Fire Department MIGHT generate $1.2 million in revenue - we don't actually know. Some of the costs will come from insurance companies - some will not. I think Rob's question, while I'm sure was done tongue-in-cheek, made the point - what's next, charging to put out fires?!

The deliberations Tuesday should be very interesting, indeed.

5/02/2009 08:59:00 PM  
Anonymous rob dickson said...

Geoff, thanks - excellent summary and characterization of the problems we face.

CMTruth, responding to a budget discussion with that sort of answer is part of the problem.

I have close friends who are CHP, LASD and LAPD. They step into the situations civilians avoid, they don't get to call someone else when the sh!t hits the fan, and they have to put up with the worst part of society. Firefighters risk exposure to smoke, fire, chemicals, disease, building collapses, etc. They are often the reason people live instead of die. I get it - don't go there.

The issue is what the city can or cannot afford. There are extreme examples of what happens when budget reality is ignored - Vallejo, and not-so-extreme - El Monte, Los Angeles, Costa Mesa.

No one disputes that police and fire should be paid well - I think they should be paid more than they are. They should have secure retirements and top-notch benefits.

However, if the money isn't there, it isn't there.

geoff discussed the issues we face, and I agree. In my opinion, Costa Mesa has two options:

1) Layoffs and across-the-board salary reductions, service cuts, lower staffing levels, etc. in order to maintain the current benefits/PERS system and balance the budget.

2) Costa Mesa employee associations negotiate serious concessions in order to maintain service levels to the residents and businesses THEY EXIST TO SERVE, save jobs and balance the budget. Part of those negotiations should include provisions to recoup the concessions if the economy rebounds and the city can afford it.

The economy has tanked, and is not showing any concrete signs of recovery. Costa Mesa's budget is hurting because the residents and businesses the municipal government EXISTS TO SERVE are getting hammered. Lower sales tax revenues mean that businesses are seriously struggling. We lost Hyundai, and the retailers at South Coast Plaza are hurting, as well as every other business. Property taxes are down because the residents have lost massive amounts of equity in their homes.

When the vast majority of our budget is salary and benefits, that is where the cuts have to come from. Increasing the burden on residents and businesses by adding fees and charging for basic public safety services in order to maintain salaries and benefits at levels negotiated when the coffers were full is just wrong.

5/04/2009 03:08:00 PM  

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