Ideologues in Huntington Beach Reject Pension Savings, Opt for Fire Department Cuts

by OC Progressive on May 9, 2011

Ed. Note: This piece was first published this weekend at Calitics.

Is Huntington Beach following the Costa Mesa train to Crazy Town, opting for confrontation instead of common sense with their employees? On Monday, May 2nd, the Huntington Beach City Council, in closed session, voted against a proposal that would save the City almost $1.3 million in pension costs over the next two years and would also create a second pension tier for future public safety employees. On May 3rd, Council Member Devin Dwyer was telling city employees that if they hadn’t been there very long, they should start looking for another job. He also said that negotiations with the Fire Association had broken down, only to be quickly corrected by a representative of that group, who expressed an interest in continuing to talk.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Orange County right wing politics, where ambitious young pols like Don Hansen and Matt Harper seem poised to try to get some of the publicity that Jim Righeimer has been garnering in Costa Mesa. Term limits will open up an Assembly, State Senate and County Supervisor seat, and the players want to be seen as pension fighters and union busters to appeal to the hard core of Republican primary voters.

As Mayor Pro Tem Don Hansen said on his Facebook page during the election, “Let’s take our city back! If you see a police car or fire truck on the mail – that’s code for “union owned.” We need taxpayer advocates not union puppets now more than ever!

Mailers supporting Hansen’s endorsed candidates echoed the attacks on public safety employees and particularly their pensions.
After three months of bargaining, the Huntington Beach Fire Association thought they had a deal that would save Huntington Beach $640,000 a year over each of the next two years. The proposed side letter to their existing agreement would also change the retirement formula for new hires to lower pension costs in the future. After three months of negotiations with staff, Fire Association President Darrin Witt felt that “we had met all of the Council’s goals set out in the strategic planning session at the beginning of the year.”

Instead of taking two scheduled raises, one of which had already been postponed for 18 months, sworn fire officers would apply that money to their pensions, increasing their pension contribution from 2.25% of their income to 6.75% of their income.

In return, the Firefighters asked for guaranteed staffing levels so that they wouldn’t have to cut the number of paramedics and engine companies that were available to respond to emergencies.

As the Council kept moving the goalposts, the paramedics and fire fighters included a budget trigger which would void the guaranteed staffing levels if revenues drop, expenses rise unexpectedly, or if CalPERS increases pension rates.

Monday, May 2, in closed session, the Huntington Beach City Council voted against the savings, moving instead towards further service cuts that would increase response times. Cutting the budget could mean service cuts that might idle one of the eight paramedic engines or one of the two ladder trucks. Budget cuts could also reduce availability of one of the cross-staffed specialized engines. Do you cut one of the paramedic engines which respond to over 12,000 9-1-1 Medical calls a year, or partially idle one of the two ladder trucks which have the ability to put firemen at roof level for the 375 structure fires a year and which also carry additional equipment like the “Jaws of Life”?

Even without more personnel cuts to HB Fire, the annexation of Sunset Beach, coupled with fewer available units for mutual aid in surrounding cities, will put pressure on response times in Huntington Beach. The Fire Department has already reduced six full time employees, including a Batallion Chief, after the City’s revenues dropped substantially during the Great Recession.

In neighboring Costa Mesa, it is Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer who pushes the party line, with staunch ideologue Steve Mensinger at his side, and a bumbling, ineffectual Mayor following along. Their hasty decision to issue layoffs to half the City has made Costa Mesa a laboratory for right wing political experiments in California, with clear results as the continued exodus of police officers, firefighters and management is crippling the City.

In HB, it’s Mayor Pro Tem Don Hansen calling the shots, with Republican Central Committee member Matt Harper, and former Central Committee member Devin Dwyer as comrades. All three are close allies of party boss Scott Baugh, a lobbyist and perennial meddler in Surf City politics. Joe Carchio plays the role of bumbling, ineffectual Mayor, whose deal to become Mayor a year ahead of schedule has been repeatedly questioned.

Don Hansen, his Red County buddy Chip Hanlon, and their Tea Party allies were big losers in the 2010 election. Two Team Hansen candidates who paid Hansen’s wife’s consulting business, Red Zone Strategies, lost in the 2010 election. Measure O, an initiative which would have shifted money away from public safety, also lost decisively.

Hansen, Harper, and Dwyer are seen as the core who have walked away from the deal that would reduce the City’s current and future pension costs, forcing service cuts instead of compromise.

Council Member Joe Shaw, elected in 2010 without support from the fire union, refused to comment on what happened during closed session, but indicated that he strongly supported the recommendations which the City received from their pension consultant, John Bartel.

“We hired an expert who recommended that we work towards a second, lower pension tier for all new hires and move toward getting employees to pick up a greater share of their pensions while holding salaries down. That is exactly what the Fire Association proposed, and it could have been a model for our negotiations with all of our employees.”

The public needs to see this choice debated in public, not hidden behind closed doors. Writing at Chip Hanlon’s Red County, Don Hansen seemed to agree as he expressed his love for country music.

One effective strategy is to adopt a set of financial policies that are debated publicly. These policies are set to guide the labor negotiations prior to commencement. For example, you could adopt a policy that says “The goal of all labor negotiations will be to increase the employee’s contribution to pension costs.” In Huntington Beach, we recently gave direction to negotiate the elimination of pending salary increases by the end of February. By taking a public vote in a meeting keenly observed by many of the union leaders, it sends a signal that there is a solid vote for such a solution.

By setting a more transparent policy goal prior to the commencement of labor negotiations, elected officials become more accountable to the ultimate result. Further, if your community leaders are not committed to fiscally sustainable labor policy their position will be publicly vetted as well. The economic consequences of these decisions are too great to keep them hidden.

Because no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.

There are three simple questions for the Council Members who rejected the Fire Department’s concessions.

(1) What policy are you advancing by refusing exactly the type of pension reform that your own expert recommends?

(2) When are you going to have the public debate on whether the residents and businesses in Huntington Beach want to sacrifice response times for your ideology?

(3) Are you looking for sustainable budget solutions or just pandering to Republican primary voters so you can get some of the attention that Jim Righeimer has been hogging?

OC Progressive is a blog that covers Orange County politics, whose editorial team includes Orange County netroots activists Joe Shaw, Heather Pritchard and Gus Ayer.

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