Santana: 2016 Promises to be a Year of Fresh Starts for County Government

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Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett will likely take over the reigns of county government later this month as chairwoman when supervisors come back from their holiday break on Jan. 12.

Each year, supervisors appoint among themselves a chairperson who is largely empowered to shape the county’s weekly meeting agenda as well as the county’s public communications. That public vote is expected to occur next week.

Many eyes are on Bartlett – who doesn’t seem to have any apparent challenger – to see how she guides the county.

With Supervisor Todd Spitzer, the outgoing chairman, moving the ball last year on several fronts – homelessness, animal shelters, ethics and law enforcement oversight – it will be up to Bartlett to provide the leadership to fill in the blanks on most of these initiatives as well as continuing to guide the fresh executive ranks, like CEO Frank Kim, that Spitzer’s term saw rise into office.

As Chairwoman, Bartlett also will get to guide the biggest revitalization effort in her district – the renovation and development of Dana Point Harbor.

It will be up to Bartlett to work with Supervisor Andrew Do – up for reelection this year – to cast a homeless services center out of a recently purchased abandoned bus shelter. Both will lead on the administration of the county’s recently acquired property in Anaheim, which is set to become the county’s first year-round homeless shelter. And Bartlett will likely be the lead on a new site for the county animal shelter.

Her biggest challenge will likely come from Spitzer’s proposal to expand law enforcement oversight from the Sheriff’s Department to include the district attorney, probation, the public defender, and social services.

Expect nasty fights from lawyers in these agencies.

That issue also will impact Spitzer, who will not only be running for reelection as a county supervisor this year but keeping an eye on how the ongoing jailhouse snitch scandal impacts the developing race for district attorney in 2018 – an office he is amassing a sizeable campaign war chest to secure.

One unique development also could brand 2016 as the “Year of Wellness” at the county – one dominated by health and fitness initiatives aimed at reducing worker health care costs and introducing potential child care as well as re-engineering department missions toward community and worker health.

After years of acrimony with the county’s main public sector workforce union, the Orange County Employees Association, county supervisors ushered in the holiday season with a three-year contract for workers that includes raises – the first substantial boost in eight years.

With a whole new set of county executives, labor leaders and county supervisors in office simultaneously, the new contract offers a unique chance to actually craft together a better working culture for workers that also hikes service delivery for taxpayers.

This could be the year that Orange County actually starts to run government like a business.

It’s the first time in nearly a decade that county supervisors start the year as an employer who is not openly attacking their workforce over their pensions or salaries.

And after so many years of politicizing the county executive ranks, there’s actually a chance to rediscover its lost core business: regional services.

This year the 1994 bankruptcy becomes a full-fledged memory – with the last payments (estimated at nearly $100 million each year) ending after a refinancing in 2006 (one that triggered a similar fiscal meltdown) cut down the payment schedule.

That should mean new revenue flows for some agencies, like OC Parks – who saw their funding drained over the past decades to meet bankruptcy payment obligations.

The biggest operational challenge facing Bartlett will be to lead the county out of the leadership void it triggered after the 1994 bankruptcy with the public.

That led to a large retrenchment among county supervisors – where even large barriers were constructed on the fifth floor at the Hall of Administration (where supervisors have their offices) to keep the public out.

It also triggered an almost obsessive interest in outsourcing government services from supervisors that continues today.

Supervisors only started to come out of the BK bunker it seems last year, with Spitzer stepping up to cast the county as leader.

Yet while the county will soon step out of the shadows from the 1994 bankruptcy – and will soon start months of celebratory cartwheels – officials are still staring another financial disaster in the face.

This one is quieter in terms of impact but it can’t be refinanced away and has the ability to quickly eat away at the county’s ability to offer regional services.

It’s the way the 2006 refinancing was done and its impact on property taxes – a drain of $73 million each year – almost as much as the bankruptcy payments.

When county supervisors refinanced the bankruptcy in 2006, they were warned that doing so would sever a special legislative authorization from Sacramento that basically allowed Wall Street to collect vehicle licensing fees usually granted to local governments like Orange County in lieu of property taxes.

Getting a place like Sacramento – run by Democrats – to redo a special tax relief for a Republican county like Orange is no easy thing. In fact, it’s likely impossible.

Yet the board of supervisors at the time did it anyway.

It cast officials at the time like Supervisor Jim Silva and Lou Correa into the legislature as finance experts.

It also left a gaping financial hole that no one has a clear plan to fix.

Few can even explain the glitch in public, much less hold anybody accountable for how it happened.

Even fewer – including our legislative delegation – have concrete options for turning it around.

  • Philmore

    “It cast officials at the time like Supervisor Jim Silva and Lou Correa into the legislature as finance experts. ….It also left a gaping financial hole that no one has a clear plan to fix…”
    So “expertise” should always leave gaping financial holes in its wake ? Hmmm.

  • David Zenger

    “As Chairwoman, Bartlett also will get to guide the biggest
    revitalization effort in her district – the renovation and development
    of Dana Point Harbor.”

    Oh, dear me. That’s what Tom Wilson said TEN YEARS AGO.

  • Paul Lucas

    We shall see.