COSTA MESA — After listening to hours of complaints about cuts to the Police Department and other criticisms, the City Council early Wednesday morning approved about $6 million in cuts and adopted a balanced budget for the fiscal year 2011-12.
The council voted 4 to 1, with Councilwoman Wendy Leece dissenting.
While the $115-million budget funds most of the current city services, it sets a tone of austerity that the council majority hopes to continue into the fall, when council members plan to have a final vote on outsourcing half the city's staff.
Some Costa Mesa leaders have drawn national attention for their conservative reform proposals they say are necessary to save the city from crushing pension costs. Employee unions and other critics argue that the council majority has exaggerated the crisis to advance its own political agenda.
"I'm very happy with this budget," said Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, who championed the cuts.
Atop of the $3.3 million savings to plug the budget deficit, he requested last week that the city cut an additional $2.8 million to set aside some money for contingencies. All of the savings were approved at the meeting.
In the standing-room-only council chambers Tuesday, Righeimer and Mayor Gary Monahan tried to quiet the crowd. People hissed at them and cheered for the council's critics, like one who sang a country ballad blasting council members, and another who said the council had waged a "hostile takeover" of the city. At one point, Monahan threatened to adjourn the meeting to calm everyone down.
The most contentious item was a Police Department restructuring estimated to save up to $1.8 million annually. The plan would reduce the number of active officers from 139 to 131. An earlier proposal also considered replacing the two sworn school police officers with three non-sworn employees, but the council rejected that idea. Instead, it decided to keep the two school police officers. Also, council members suggested adding reserve officers at the schools, or spreading out the current officers’ schedules so they work five days a week, instead of four.Righeimer said that "many of us roll around at night and can't sleep because we have to lay off somebody, and it's not an easy job."
The police proposals helped spur the resignation Monday of interim Police Chief Steve Staveley.
"There's a point in time where I reached an ethical dilemma: stay and take their money and be quiet about the foolish council decision-making, or reject their money and call them on it," Staveley said Monday.
Many audience members said they were concerned that Police Department changes would make the city less safe. Leece warned it would jeopardize gains the city had made in recent years reducing crime.
"We're going to leave ourselves vulnerable for many crimes to happen, and I think it's it is foolhardy," Leece said.
Other cuts included the elimination of an animal control officer. A worker from a local animal shelter, Tiffany Kaufmann, waved a sign in support of animal control officer Yolanda Macias.
"If they take away Costa Mesa animal control, then they're basically giving a death sentence to a lot of animals," she said.
To achieve some last-minute cuts, City Chief Executive Tom Hatch proposed leaving some of the 29 vacant city positions unfilled, or eliminating some of those empty positions. He also said the city could spend half of the $100,000 budgeted to hire an economic development consultant; economic development is one of the priorities identified by this business-minded council. The council approved all of his ideas.
Most of the public comments came in the beginning of the meeting, while the actual budget wasn't adopted until past 1 a.m. Only a handful of people spoke in favor of the council majority's plans.
In February, the city announced the potential layoffs of 213 city employees — nearly half the city's workforce — across 18 departments. Tuesday's budget, however, assumes most of those employees will still be working for the city, as companies are still responding to the outsourcing proposals.
Not until the fall will the council be able to decide which outsourcing plans are cost-effective, city spokesman William Lobdell said before the meeting.
The financial debate took a tragic turn in March when city maintenance worker Huy Pham, 29, jumped to his death from the roof of City Hall. He was to receive a layoff notice later that day.
Since that time, council members have reported threats of violence and vandalism of their property. More than 10 police officers stood sentry at the meeting Tuesday.