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)

Hiring the "best" firefighters and officers was the top priority for the City Council in the years following the attacks ofSeptember 11, 2001.

Cities statewide were competing for recruits and driving up the going rate — agencies generally try to pay median rates to comparable municipalities — in a tight labor market.

The city hired about 20 more police officers in the early 2000s, after graffiti and shootings stemming from gang activity increased.

The department established a gang task force, and council members told administrators to "do whatever we had to do" to bring on new officers and fill vacant positions, said Roeder, the former city manager.

"We were under a lot of community pressure, and a lot of council pressure, about increasing staffing in the Police Department," Roeder said. "People were very, very unhappy."

While some studies show that more officers do not necessarily translate to fewer crimes, the city saw dropping crime rates during most of the 2000s, as did the nation as a whole. Public perception improved. Then, after another spate of violence in 2006, the council added even more police officers.

"It helped tremendously," Foley said. "We put a lid on any kind of significant gang problem in this city."

Public safety workers saw 3% to 6% raises in 2004, depending on their position. That was a $3.2-million annual cost to the city, according to news reports from that time.

"For public safety, first responders, you have to have the best," Foley said. "It's a matter of life and death."

That hiring mentality may have raised the stakes for economic down times. As revenue fell during the recession, the city was locked into paying raises and benefits.

"We may have promised more than we could afford," Roeder said.

Nonpublic safety employees

Public safety employees weren't the only ones who did well. For engineers, plan checkers and other general city workers, the city spent 23% more for all of their salaries and benefits in the 2008-09 fiscal year, in today's dollars, than it did in 2000-01.

"We have bargained very hard, and we have done very well," Berardino, the OCEA general manager, said at a Concordia University symposium on pension reform.

OCEA represents some 200 of Costa Mesa's nonpublic safety workers.

One of them is Bruce Lindemann, a maintenance supervisor who started painting curbs and has worked for the city for 22 years. In 2011, his base salary was $87,000, and his compensation totaled $116,000, including the city's contribution toward his retirement and health benefits.

Unlike Ruhl, who has five years on the job and lives in South County, Lindemann was able to buy a Costa Mesa home in 1998, according to public records, when prices were much lower. He spends his free time surfing and boating. He has a Bayliner, an everyman's motorboat. It's a decent career that Lindemann says he will try to preserve, even if it means leaving Costa Mesa for a department elsewhere on the Pacific Coast.

No tax increases

Spending on employees isn't the only reason Costa Mesa was strapped during the recession. For decades, council members have been reluctant to ask voters to increase taxes, Roeder said, and instead would point to the ample sales tax receipts.

"The city has been overly reliant on sales tax for a long time," he said.