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Community Commentary: Firefighters should contribute more toward their pension costs

December 05, 2011|By Gary Monahan

I wanted to set the record straight on the city of Costa Mesa's labor negotiations with the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn. about how much, if any, our firefighters should pay toward their own pensions ("Contract talks disputed," Nov. 17).

There have been some inaccuracies in the media and elsewhere, and I thought it was important Costa Mesa taxpayers know exactly what's happening.

Little more than year ago, the Costa Mesa Firefighters Assn. renegotiated its contract with the city. The pension costs, formulas and percentages can be confusing to those not fluent in government language. So for this piece, let's assume we are talking about per-year retirement costs for a firefighter who makes $100,000 annually in a pension-eligible salary.

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As part of the deal, a firefighter started to pay $6,000 ($5,000 in new contributions, in addition to the $1,000 he had been paying) toward his retirement. The taxpayers contributed $40,404 — and were on the hook for the predicted pension-rate increases.

For those doing the math, you are not mistaken: For every $100,000 earned, a firefighter's pension costs an additional $46,404. The $100,000 example is a little lower than the average pension eligible salary of Costa Mesa firefighters in the current fiscal year ($103,128); the average total compensation is $155,783.

In September, the city asked the firefighters' association to have its members continue the $6,000 contribution to their own retirements through the length of their current contract, which ends in April 2015. The added contribution would save the city $500,000 annually.

The firefighters countered with an offer to continue to pay the $6,000 for just three more months.

At this point, two things happened.

First, the City Council decided to hire an experienced labor negotiator, believing his or her expertise would likely save taxpayers millions of dollars over the course of employee contracts. The employees' associations all have top-flight attorneys who help them with their negotiations. The city thought taxpayers deserved an even playing field.

Second, the city was given more details about its steeply rising, unsustainable pension costs and massive unfunded pension liabilities. Major structural changes were needed to keep the city fiscally healthy, a problem most California cities are facing.

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