Costa Mesa firefighter Mike Ruhl is welcomed home by his wife Megan and 2-year-old son Bradley at their Mission Viejo townhome. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / July 5, 2012)

First in a series about Costa Mesa's political battle.

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The Ruhls are a throwback to simpler times.

The sweet smell of fresh-baked coffee cake drifts out their front door. Their tidy Mission Viejo townhome's bathroom is stocked with wholesome magazines like Good Housekeeping.

Megan can stay at home with their two young children because her husband, Costa Mesa firefighter Mike Ruhl, makes enough to support them. His base salary is $74,000, and overtime brought him to about $115,000 in 2011.

"It's all about being a dad and a husband," said Mike Ruhl, 26.

The city compensates Ruhl for risking his life while fighting fires, but the pay and benefits that allow him to provide for his family are illustrative of a different kind of blaze — a political one — engulfing Costa Mesa.

Public employees like Ruhl say the compensation they receive affords them middle-class lifestyles, while the reform-minded City Council majority sees those employees' salaries, benefits and retirement plans as impediments to the city's long-term fiscal stability.

Outsource as many government functions as possible, they say, and the city will save on employment costs accumulated over the past decade.

But organized labor supporters argue the city can efficiently serve residents and businesses, while maintaining job security for loyal public workers. Employees are joined by members of a grass-roots community group and the lone dissenter on the council. Many say the council majority exaggerated the fiscal crisis and may have even concocted a political ruse.

When a maintenance worker, faced with a layoff notice, committed suicide about a year and a half ago, the political fight clearly intensified. But the conflict's causes date back more than a decade, according to an extensive review of past budgets and interviews conducted by the Daily Pilot. Previous council decisions, a change in council leadership and the recession have brought Costa Mesa to an unprecedented political precipice that could reshape its local government.

Battle lines

The battle is being fought on at least three fronts: the courts, where city employees are suing to block the outsourcing plans; the campaign trail, where two opposing ideological slates are competing to either push forward or overturn drastic reform efforts; and the ballot box, where a proposed city charter could reduce union power.

Labor won a reprieve Friday when a panel of judges ruled an injunction prohibiting outsourcing to the private sector would remain in place temporarily.

As the debate unfolds, it is clear that the majority of council members want to slash employment costs. But their reasoning is another story. At first, they said the city was on the brink of insolvency and pension payments were skyrocketing. Now that the budget is balanced, they say the streets and sidewalks are crumbling, and they need to carve out repair funds.

Conservative members argue that those priorities are consistent: Long-term financial planning is critical for future generations, and old Goat Hill's infrastructure is deteriorating.

But veteran Councilwoman Wendy Leece, a Republican and the lone minority member on the council, and many city employees represented by union-like groups known as associations, contend these reasons are a thin cover. The true political agenda, their supporters say, is coming from the Orange County Republican Party and the council majority: to reduce local governments' payroll and benefits by outsourcing.

When Newport Beach officials were negotiating with employees, OCGOP Chairman Scott Baugh said salaries and retirement benefits are pushing cities to the brink.

"We have a crisis with public-employee pensions in this state," he said. "It's going to be a catastrophe."

It's not so dire, Leece and others say. Costa Mesa's pension outlook will improve once the economy fully recovers, tax revenue climbs, and pension debt is lessened by investment gains, they contend.