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New fire contract pushes retirement

Some in City Hall say package, which would save $5.3M in next four years, is more costly in the long run. Wages should be lowered, not the number of firefighters, they add.

August 12, 2009|By Alan Blank

The new contract that Costa Mesa’s City Council approved for its firefighters Tuesday night enhances retirement benefits in order to encourage 12 firefighters to retire early.

Politicians, activists and observers have different opinions on whether it will save the city money in the long run, though.

Here’s the city’s math:

Allowing firefighters to retire at age 50 instead of 55 will cost the city an extra $700,000 a year.

The city will save $660,000 per year because the firefighters have agreed to forgo a scheduled pay raise of 4.9%.

This trade-off costs the city about $40,000 per year, but the better retirement package is expected to entice 12 firefighters (who earn an average of about $150,000 each annually) to retire early, saving the city a total of about $5.3 million over the next four years, when the contract expires.

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Mayor Allan Mansoor and Councilman Eric Bever voted against the package, while Mayor Pro Tem Wendy Leece, Councilman Gary Monahan and Councilwoman Katrina Foley provided the three votes necessary for its passage.

“I believe there is another way to get there. This has long-term consequences in terms of cost increase,” Mansoor said.

Monahan and Foley said the union’s proposal saves the city much more than it was asking for (a 5% salary reduction).

A big factor in determining whether the strategy saves money in the long run is whether the city decides to replace the firefighters it loses through retirements when the money starts flowing in again.

According to the contract that the firefighters signed with the city, that determination will be made by the city manager if and when the city’s revenues top $105 million (they’re projected to be well below $100 million this year).

“[Filling those positions] is not an automatic by any means,” said City Manager Allan Roeder, adding that he would weigh the need for more firefighters against other needs in the city, but he said that public safety has long been the council’s highest priority.

It used to be a given that the fire department had to stay staffed at a high level. The toughest obstacle for city negotiators was that, before Tuesday night, it was written into the contract that no fewer than 32 firefighters had to be on duty at any time.

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