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City's layoff action 'like a sinking boat'

Costa Mesa employees receiving the notices say they are in a torturous workplace of uncertainty.

March 17, 2011|By Joseph Serna, joseph.serna@latimes.com
(Don Leach | don.leach@latimes.com )

COSTA MESA — Manila envelopes in hand, about 10 Costa Mesa employees walked out of the city maintenance offices Thursday with their heads hanging.

"I'm let down," said Steve Bradford, 38, a city mechanic for almost 10 years. "You try and do a good job for a place … "

Bradford and his coworkers were among more than 200 city employees notified Thursday that they would be laid off Sept. 17, or six months.

But having the piece of paper in hand is different than just talking about it.

"It makes it real," said Ruben Salas, a city mechanic for the last five years.

Salas has applied to other cities since learning of the potential layoffs. He recently refinanced his house after missing mortgage payments because of the pay cuts employees had agreed to last year.

The day was made worse for many after a 29-year-old city maintenance worker, Huy Pham, of Fountain Valley, jumped to his death from the roof of city hall Thursday afternoon. Officials said he was scheduled to receive his layoff notice later in the day.

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Many city employees said they've known for months that layoffs were coming.

Councilman Jim Righeimer ran for election last year on a platform of pension reform, the cause célèbre for many politicians in recent times.

The City Council earlier this month voted to outsource 18 city services to private contractors to cap pension costs that are projected to balloon in the next few years. About $15 million of the city's $93-million budget went toward funding pensions this year, and that number could rise as high as $25 million by 2015, city officials say.

"We're going to exercise all plausible options to fiscally right our ship," said Councilman Steve Mensinger. "We've come to the end of the road. We can't kick the can any longer."

The worst part of the council's action, workers said, is the ambiguity of who will be replaced and who will be asked to stay.

"It's been torture not knowing," Bradford said. "It's like a sinking boat. Do I jump or do I stay?"

Mensinger said "the uncertainty is nothing we like to give anybody, but we don't have any options. The budget is based on a calendar."

Costa Mesa city officials are considering a proposal to contract with the Orange County Fire Authority, with many of the city's firefighters folding into the OCFA's ranks and remaining based in the city. The rest of those facing layoffs have to wait to see if the city finds someone to replace them.

"They're definitely putting the cart before the horse," Salas said.

Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn., said Costa Mesa "hasn't even looked at the consequences of outsourcing. If you have a leaky roof, you don't demolish the house; you fix the roof. This is to advance a political agenda."

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