The complexity of a county supervisor's seat was front and center at a candidates' forum Tuesday night, where most candidates for the first district seat struggled to address many of the top public policy questions facing county leaders.
One of the frontrunners to fill the seat vacated by State Sen. Janet Nguyen, her chief-of-staff and former Garden Grove councilman Andrew Do, didn't even show up at Tuesday's forum, one of few public debates scheduled before the special election Jan. 27.
As Voice of OC reported Tuesday, at the top of county leaders' legislative agenda this year is Orange County's weak allocation of property tax revenue, which is just six cents on the dollar, among the lowest in the state.
Moderators at Tuesday's event centered on the issue.
In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown's budget staff found $73 million for the state budget in 2012 by reversing a deal cut during the county's 1994 bankruptcy, creating a hole in the county budget and elevating the issue's importance.
While other candidates didn't seem to understand the question, it played to the advantage to the longest serving incumbent in the race, termed-out State Sen. Lou Correa.
Correa gave the audience a brief history lesson on Prop. 13, the 1978 ballot measure which still sets the baseline for property tax allocations across the state.
"At the time, Orange County was young and relatively wealthy in terms of the rest of the state. Today that formula is still there...[but] today we are like the rest of the state. We have average incomes and the same challenges in terms of taking care of our seniors and children," Correa said.
"I moved that gauge a little bit. I secured $50 million per year in perpetuity for Orange County," Correa said, referring to a special allocation he secured in 2009 while in the State Senate.
Moderators also asked candidates about their approach to providing cost effective medical coverage, and oversight of CalOptima, the county's health plan for low-income and disabled residents.
CalOptima, which has been the focus of investigative coverage from Voice of OC since 2010, has been under increased scrutiny after federal and state auditors slammed the agency for mismanagement and "serious and significant problems." Now the agency is being re-audited and hopes to make changes to improve its health services, especially pharmacy and anti-fraud programs.
"From what we've read in the paper in the last year...we want to make sure there's enough people and checks and balances to look over operations, not just from one particular supervisor," said Chuyen Van Nguyen, a TV anchor for a Vietnamese language station.
Nguyen was also on the staff of former State Sen. Joe Dunn, who is member of Voice of OC's Board of Directors.
Chris Phan, a first-term Garden Grove councilman who has been campaigning since July, suggested a "comprehensive study" to make sure the agency is not providing redundant work.
Correa said the county should continue to focus on improving access to services, complimenting outreach work in Little Saigon by the first district under Sen. Nguyen.
On the issue of how the county should fulfill a federal mandate to reduce homelessness over the next decade, Correa reiterated his support for building a shelter that "includes support from the local community," a jab at a proposal by supervisors earlier this year that drew sharp criticism from nearby residents and business owners.
Phan said the county needs to break down its approach into "smaller chunks" rather than having "a big grand plan."
"We have to look at the cause of homelessness and address the problem at the core, and find a place to house them. It can't just be a first district problem," Phan said.
Lupe Morfin-Moreno, an employee at the county Health Care Agency, said the county should focus on preventing homelessness through mental health interventions and policing.
Nguyen said homelessness is a national problem that needs to be solved with a collaborative effort between cities, the county and state.
Mark Lopez, a perennial candidate who also ran for Santa Ana Mayor in the November election, offered political commentary on the issue.
"I think most politicians think homeless people don’t vote, so why bother," Lopez said.
Moderators, who included members of local chambers of commerce, also asked candidates what actions they would take to grow business activity and support small- and medium-sized businesses.
Phan suggested tax incentives and low interest loans for small businesses, and pointed to the approach in Garden Grove -- attracting big outside developers.
"We brought in the Great Wolf Lodge to Garden Grove. You think, that’s not local business…but they’re a national chain and will employ and hire all the people that will build that lodge," Phan said.
Correa suggested allowing more local businesses to compete for county contracts.
"The county budget is huge. There's no reason why those contracts should not be going to local small businesses. The state and feds have programs like that," he said. "Millions are invested in IT projects — why can’t those go to our local companies?"
A private debate will be held on Jan. 8 by the Orange County Public Affairs Association at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach.
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