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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Naive or Realistic 

Let’s start with a definition and how it might apply to Costa Mesa’s – and California’s -- government.

According to Wikipedia, naivety (or naïveté) “is . . . having or showing a lack of experience, understanding or sophistication . . .  where one neglects (being realistic) in favor of moral idealism.”

405 Fiasco

Remember when Caltrans insisted on a double carpool lane for Interstate 405? They said it would be good for the City in the long run. Once the investment was paid off, they said, tolls would cease and all of the harms it caused in Costa Mesa would be healed.

We should notice though, that Caltrans’ plans are not plans in the business sense. Their executives do not set milestones and reach the plan’s goals. They just plan, settle in, and increase the tolls from time to time.

What’s the evidence?  This article by Doug Irving in a recent Orange County Register article covers it well. He writes about a study that suggests “Toll roads may never pay off debt.” Toll Roads forever article

Never? Our grandchildren will be paying tolls on these same roads? Didn't they tell us the roads would be paid off and the tolls would stop?

The answers are all “yes.”

Former Mayor Eric Bever led the battle that forced Caltrans to select a different plan for Costa Mesa’s stretch of the “OC Crush.” His sophistication saved a lot of problems for the City.

You want another example?

More pension benefits without any cost to us  

How about the (cancerous) growth of unfunded liabilities by cities, counties, and school boards that depended on CalPers for their employee’s pensions? “CalPers assures us the city won’t have to pay a cent for these expanded benefits, so let’s share the good times. It won’t cost us a penny. They put that in writing in their brochure.”
Now we see that the unfunded portions of our liabilities are growing, into the billions. And Costa Mesa is on a course to add 50% to her millions in unfunded liabilities. But didn't they assure us . . . ?

Yes, they did. Please re-read the definition above.

We expect capable politicians, not dreamers 

We should be able to expect the politicians we elect to be realistic, and maybe even sophisticated. We should expect them to apply a critical eye to plans, estimates, and promises when they address their responsibilities as government officers.

They should not be naïve. They should not believe in free money from Washington D.C., or pensions funded by 7.5% investment growth.

How do we know

How are we, as citizens of Costa Mesa, to hold our leaders to realistic
decisions? How can we evaluate the proposals, such as that by organized labor to institute PLAs (Project Labor Agreements) with school districts? How are we to understand, and tell our City Council what we want, when we look at demands for funds from various charities?

A start is to look realistically at the choices. For example, a student pilot learns that she can have airspeed or altitude, but not both. She has to choose, knowing that as one increases the other decreases.

There is a similar scale for individuals. We can choose (or have the state choose for us) the free food and medical benefits we get in prison but we’ll enjoy little freedom. Or, we can pay for our own benefits and enjoy a lot more freedom as a business owner.

What realistic information should educational systems use to decide about PLAs? What are realistic options?

Questions to ask

First, are the unions that are seeking PLAs trying to support their communities, as they claim?

Northern California faced a “sympathy strike” by the trash haulers’ union this week. The local trash haulers had no beef with their company or their community. They were striking in support of an out-of-state group of trash haulers.

That is, California communities suffered because a union in another state was more important to the local union than their own communities. It might be naïve, then, to think that unions, in general, will show any loyalty to their—and our-- communities.

And PLAs increase the price paid for needed work, decreasing what can be done with the limited dollars available. This may hurt the district’s bond ratings, which increases the cost of borrowing to build school infrastructure. So, the unions may not have our interests in mind when they demand PLAs, and the PLAs raise our costs. Our choices are clearer when we are realistic instead of idealistic – or naïve.

Charities want a hand

Giving our funds to charities provides money to groups that may be run by executives with six-figure paychecks. Their income depends upon their recruiting more and more “helpless and homeless,” not on resolving the recipients’ issues. So, if a given charity would be laughed out of a church-council meeting for soliciting donations, why would the City give them money? Recall the definition of naïve.

Perhaps building infrastructure that supports productive measures, such as shelters and belongings storage, would be better. Providing help to an agency that demonstrates significant help for Costa Mesans might be worthwhile.

But, a realistic approach suggests that if no local group is funding an agency for significant amounts, Costa Mesa City probably shouldn't either.

A quick glance at the staff report for the Block Grant Study Session this week shows about 83 homeless and 41 disabled have been helped so far this fiscal year. The cost for contacting nearly 1780 needy people has been about $140K plus City Staff time. Notice the number actually helped in each category in the City’s report. (That information is near the end.) Block grant staff report

Step over to the rational side 

The difference between naïve and realistic is a chasm. Unfortunately, too often in the past our politicians have fallen, for whatever reason, on the naïve side.

Let’s insist that our government officers do what’s best for Costa Mesa, not what sounds sweet and nice. Let’s insist they consider the trade-offs and the likely consequences, instead of swallowing “projections” and promises as if they were business plans.

It's not the same

Projections and promises from CalPers, Caltrans, and similar agencies are not business plans. 

Beware of unfunded liabilities and unsubstantiated promises. They'll come back to bite you!

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