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Editorial: City outsourcing plan warrants consideration

March 11, 2011

From the viewpoint of a policy wonk, Costa Mesa could be the most interesting city in Orange County right now. The old "Hub of the Harbor" is now on the cutting edge of an ambitious plan to reshape how a municipality delivers services.

And, if the council majority is correct, there may be no other choice than to do what it suggests: lay off up to 50% of the workforce and outsource their jobs to the private sector. The city, the majority argues, is headed toward a financial iceberg formed not of frozen water, but of dangerously jagged employee pensions. Plenty of folks whom we respect disagree, saying the predictions of doom and gloom are nothing but a canard so that an idealistic council can push through its smaller-government agenda.

As often is the case, we think the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle, and we trust that the city's management team and council will due their diligence in the coming months before deciding how much of the work force needs to stay and how much needs to go. Costa Mesa has been indeed struggling to pay for services and the current path is likely too risky, but at the same time axing up to half of an able municipal staff seems like an overreaction to a serious but surmountable problem.

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That said, our tiny editorial board of three is not quite ready to issue an opinion on the merits of Costa Mesa's far-reaching program. Much like Costa Mesa itself, there are those among us who feel that the best government is a small one, while there are also voices from the left, arguing that only good government can fix the city's problems.

But this we agree on: Employee pensions are a problem in Orange County and statewide, as politicians spent decades sweetening the packages of the employee associations and unions that got them elected. Leaders of the past left the current generation — and the one now coming up — holding the proverbial bag.

So credit the Costa Mesa City Council for this bold stroke. This conversation needs to happen. The current council, infused with some new blood, is focused on what matters most: the budget. And we have to say that we like the council's attitude that there are no sacred cows, including their own seats on the dais, if their plan goes over poorly with the community (and voters).

We need more information before taking a position on complex changes that would require major overhauls, such as outsourcing fire and paramedic services. But we are not philosophically opposed to outsourcing when it makes sense. We see little argument for keeping services like refuse hauling or graphic design in house, when contractors can provide them. But sometimes there is a temptation to cut without looking at where the knife is going and to favor cost-savings over the institutional knowledge that so many municipal workers bring.

But there is also a temptation to resist change, even when the current system is, as one councilman recently put it, unsustainable.

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