Nearly 50 local residents came out last week to join county Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery and myself to chat about something that most insiders think the public doesn’t care about.
Woolery called it “Accounting for Activists,” when he reached out to our newsroom earlier this year asking whether we’d be interested in helping moderate a session designed to teach residents how to actually hold their government accountable.
We were in immediately – as our mission is to work to enhance public understanding and engagement of local government by focusing on transparency and accountability.
We didn’t quite know how residents would respond to a call from a public accountant to dive into the weeds of the county budget.
Their response and participation left us inspired.
The room was packed. People took notes all night long. They brought tons of questions and most didn’t want to leave.
Activists from Dana Point, fresh from organizing and winning a ballot initiative, showed up asking tons of details questions about city budgets, comprehensive annual financial audit reports and the recent audit of Dana Point Harbor.
They promised to be back soon at city hall, asking for budgets and financial reports to inform their activism.
We had members of the Former Grand Jurors Association, who I visited with a few weeks back, who showed up, ready to beef up their financial analysis skills and stay engaged with county government.
There were immigration and LGBT activists looking to better understand the local jail budgets that hold particular sway in their lives and communities.
Residents from Costa Mesa were there to better understand the intersection of their city budget from a development and affordable housing perspective.
The key here is that all these residents were hungry to better understand where the public's dollars are headed and where they are not.
And they were willing to do the hard work it takes to understand government financial documents.
Most importantly, they get that information is power.
And they want it.
Woolery took more than two hours to go through documents like the county budget, the annual comprehensive annual financial report as well as the public citizens’ report that is now also required for public auditors.
He also talked to residents about how government audits are performed and also how they can access his own office’s resources with public records requests about any curiosity they have about public spending in their jurisdictions.
Then, he took questions.
There wasn’t one bad one in the bunch.
Mostly, the questions were related around where is all the money going and why isn’t it being channeled into quality of life programs.
Most officials, too nervous to tell the public the truth, will blame things like the economy or the rising cost of pensions.
But here’s the real truth why much of your public infrastructure and services are falling behind in many cases.
More and more, we see our elected officials only do one thing when it comes to local government: law enforcement spending.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors is increasingly voting to militarize the county's general fund with each year’s budget process.
Consider this from our recent budget coverage:
Since fiscal year 2000, the sheriff and district attorney budgets have more than tripled their share of the county’s unrestricted spending, growing from 7 percent to 23 percent.
This year is more of the same.
Under the proposed budget supported by supervisors at their annual budget hearing, the sheriff and DA – which account for about one-seventh of the county’s overall spending – are on track to get over 75 percent of the extra $37 million in discretionary spending beyond an across-the-board 1-percent increase to each department.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer was frank with the public, announcing the only thing we can expect from this board of supervisors is police spending.
“The bars are going up” on the county discretionary spending on law enforcement, “and I don’t see that changing,” Spitzer declared earlier this month during budget hearings, making it clear he wants the county to continue dipping further into its unrestricted general fund to pay for more law enforcement.
That certainly works great for a guy running for DA and for all the other supervisors looking to higher office because their friends in law enforcement offer a politically lucrative endorsement.
But does it work for taxpayers?
They are ones who get stuck with the massive pension bill – anchored by the generous and costly 3@50 retirement benefit for deputy sheriffs that is a key linchpin in the county’s expanding unfunded pension liability, recently estimated by our grand jury at $4.5 billion.
Remember, these Republican politicians won’t say this but every time they hike law enforcement salaries, it’s a pension spike because it fuels that liability more than any other type of public spending.
Republican elected officials in Orange County will often complain about “unions” but never say a word about law enforcement unions – which are the only group with the political power to significantly spike public sector spending.
And because your politicians know you are asleep on such details, they just keep doubling down on the same budget play they’ve been using since the 1980s.
Now, I have no issue with adequately funding our law enforcement needs.
But that shouldn’t be the only thing we invest in.
A myriad of public sector investments – like libraries, schools, parks – also lower crime.
So when does our board of supervisors actually get to work and try to solve systemic social and health problems in our communities rather than just spending more on law enforcement?
When you, the public, shows up and starts offering alternatives.
If you do not, then your board of supervisors’ option is to mount a police state and defund every other public service.
They’re even bold enough to put you on notice.
Will you take the challenge?