Orange County Sheriff’s Department employees continue to be upset over a United Way payroll deduction policy that diverted donations meant for the Sheriff’s Advisory Council to the United Way’s general donation pool, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens told the Board of Supervisors this week.

“I don’t want to make this about United Way,” Hutchens said while seeking board permission for payroll deductions to go directly to the Sheriff’s Advisory Council. But, she said, workers in her department “feel very strongly” about the way their charitable donations were handled, and “I don’t see how we get them back to a position where they trust” United Way.

Hutchens was before the supervisors Tuesday to ask that they approve a policy that would allow employees to bypass United Way and send their donation directly to the advisory council, which supports a variety of Sheriff’s Department causes that aren’t covered in the regular department budget. They include a memorial to deputies and help with expenses for the families of injured deputies.

Hutchens’ request stems from a United Way policy that required all county workers who wanted their payroll deductions to go to a specific charity to fill out a form each year specifically naming the charity.

Hutchens told the supervisors that 1,100 of the Sheriff’s Department’s 4,000 workers had signed up to make automatic donations to the advisory council through automatic payroll deductions that they thought went to the United Way and then to the council.

But the employees weren’t aware of a United Way policy that required them to fill out a form each year to designate the money for the Sheriff’s Council. Without the annual designation, payroll deductions continued, but the money went to United Way’s general pool for all the charities it supports in Orange County.

Hutchens said the number of employees making donations dropped to 43 after workers learned their donations were going to other causes if they had failed to fill out the annual form, even though the payroll deductions continued.

According to United Way, it began correcting the issue last year.

But Supervisor John Moorlach put the problem succinctly. “United Way frustrated the snot out of our employees and that’s why we’re here” discussing the issue, he said.

Added Supervisor Pat Bates, “It’s real simple. The Sheriff’s Advisory Council lost 1,000 members. It’s United Way’s problem, and they ‘have a lot of ‘splaining to do’ before we have that next meeting.”

Supervisors postponed voting on the Sheriff’s Department payroll withholding issue until their Jan. 14 meeting, partly because no one at the county told officials at United Way the issue was on Tuesday’s agenda.

The same issue could apply to charities supported by county workers in other departments, supervisors said.

The roots of the controversy go back more than a decade and involve the methods used by United Way to conduct its annual fundraising campaign among all county departments.

Orange County United Way has net assets of about $17 million, according to its 2011 tax return, and supports dozens of local charities, including many that help children, education and homeless causes.

According to the discussion at the supervisors’ meeting, there are two issues. One is the 9-percent fee United Way collects on each Sheriff’s Department employee’s donation that is designated for the Advisory Council.

Moorlach said the fee is too high, and Supervisor Shawn Nelson, the board chairman, questioned why county employees were making their contributions to the Advisory Council through United Way and not just giving the money directly through automatic bank checks or deductions.

Max Gardner, Orange County United Way president and CEO, said in a telephone interview that since he took over management of the organization in 2011, policies have changed.

Last year, county employees in all departments that participate in United Way campaigns were asked to fill out new forms and designate a preferred charity, if they had one.

Starting this year, the donations continue going to those designated organizations even without an annual earmark by the donor, he said.

In addition, Gardner said he wasn’t sure why county workers didn’t know they had to file a form each year if they had a specific charity they wanted to support.

“The county knew this,” he said, although it’s not clear who knew. “I know the information was at the county.”

In any case, he said, “We solved that problem.”

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