Orange County supervisors on Tuesday broke a monopoly the local United Way had on county employee charitable giving through paycheck deductions, approving a change that allows employees to direct their money to other "county-sponsored" nonprofits.
Until this week, when county workers wanted charitable donations deducted straight from their paychecks, the money had to go through the Orange County United Way before reaching their intended charity.
That drew opposition from sheriff’s employees, who objected to the 9-percent fee that United Way charged before passing donations along.
Trust was also broken, they said, because of a former United Way policy that improperly redirected donations away from their intended charity.
The vote to expand options for payroll deductions to include a limited list of other nonprofits such as the Sheriff’s Advisory Council was 4-1, with Chairman Shawn Nelson opposing.
Among its programs, the advisory council supports a memorial for deputies and helps with expenses for the families of deputies who are injured and killed.
The only other groups that would qualify are the 16 Friends of the Library groups and the Orange County Parks Foundation, once it gains 501(c)3 tax-exempt status.
A potential change has been in play since at least December, when Sheriff Sandra Hutchens brought the issue to supervisors.
Her employees “feel very strongly” about how their donations are handled, Hutchens said at the time.
“I don’t see how we get them back to a position where they trust” the United Way, she said.
Max Gardner, president and CEO of Orange County United Way, owned up to past shortfalls on Tuesday.
“I think we slipped up some,” Gardner told supervisors. “We had some missteps along the way, a few years back particularly,” with the way procedures were implemented.
However, Gardner said, after he learned of the problems, "we fixed them."
Gardner added that Sheriff Hutchens has agreed to join United Way’s board of directors.
As of a few years ago, about 4,000 county workers used payroll deductions to contribute to charity. After workers were asked to reauthorize their deductions, staff said, the number plummeted to 383, about a 90-percent drop.
Supervisors considered ending payroll deductions altogether on Tuesday, a route that Nelson wanted to take.
“If it were up to me, I would end this thing today,” said Nelson, calling it “bad policy” for the county to pick a winning charity.
He argued that the policy is now outdated, given that workers can simply set up automatic donations through their banks.
“This isn’t 1979, and technology should be reflected in the way the organization’s structured. And in my opinion, it isn’t,” said Nelson.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, meanwhile, said it’s important for employees to help with hosting charitable events.
“There’s a lot of pride” surrounding the county's work with United Way, Spitzer said. “And it’s put a heart on government.”
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and other county officials have chaired some of the charity’s campaigns, Spitzer pointed out.
“As a collective county consciousness, we have embraced giving,” said Spitzer.
It was yet another clash between Spitzer and Nelson, who have openly tussled several times in recent months.
Nelson maintained that it’s ridiculous to spend employees’ time organizing outside events and that taxpayers didn’t put supervisors in office to run charity drives.
“I don’t want our staff running around” doing anything other than working for the taxpayers of Orange County, Nelson said.
If employees and managers want to get involved with charity, he added, they should do it on their own time.
“It’s appropriate that we strongly encourage our employees to be givers, to be charitable, to be uplifting” to others, said Nelson. “But I don’t need the United Way to assist me in doing that anymore.”
Spitzer disagreed, saying the charity work is very inspirational to county staff.
“As policy makers, we are responsible for standing up and framing what we want our county to be,” Spitzer said.