By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
November 27, 2011, 10:54 p.m.

It’s business as usual at Santa Ana City Hall as residents trickle up to the counter to pay business fees, pick up a dog license or, in a newer wing next door, apply for a free solar permit.

But on the top floor of the eight-story concrete fortress, city officials in Orange County’s most labor-friendly city are doing the once unthinkable: demanding big benefit concessions from their employee unions.

Getting a handle on pension costs in the county’s largest city is a must, officials here say. Santa Ana is facing a $30-million deficit, has only $300,000 in reserves and is jettisoning jobs by the dozens to keep its head above water. Last year, the city paid out about $11.3 million for employee pension costs.

Now the city and scores of others around the state are getting a potential assist from Gov. Jerry Brown, who is calling for sweeping reforms in public-employee pensions. Santa Ana is among the cities that would see the most significant cost reductions if workers were required to pick up more of their retirement costs.

A Times analysis based on 2009 payrolls shows that cities and counties in California would save an estimated $1.3 billion if local government workers statewide paid what the governor’s office determines to be the normal employee share of pension contributions. Brown says workers should be contributing about 8% of their paychecks to their own retirement. Police and firefighters, who have more generous pensions, should pay about 9%, Brown says.

In Santa Ana, a densely packed city of 320,000 where nearly one-fifth of the residents live at the poverty line, there would be an immediate annual savings of $4.5 million if workers paid their normal share, officials said. Santa Ana was already negotiating to get employees to pay more of their pension costs when Brown made his proposal, said Paul Walters, the city’s longtime police chief who is filling in as city manager.

“Anything that helps that along is good for us, definitely,” Walters said. “Every little bit helps.”

Newport Beach, Fullerton, Santa Monica and Long Beach are taking a similar hard-line approach to gain concessions on retirement costs. Like Santa Ana, all have been generous in picking up pension costs in the past.

In Los Angeles, city and county employees are already required to contribute nearly all of the normal employee portion. But under Brown’s plan, they could be required to kick in more.

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