Santana: OC Public Safety Salary Spending Expected to Spike

Orange County taxpayers could easily see a tripling of costs for public safety over the next five fiscal years, according to a recent fiscal analysis released this month by the County of Orange.

During a public presentation of the County of Orange Strategic Financial plan earlier this month, documents show supplemental budget requests for public safety are expected to soar from $49 million this year to $130 million by fiscal year 2021-22.

Meanwhile, every other county department is looking at relatively static budgets over the next five years.

County finance staff publicly attributed the expected spending public safety spending spike to “salary and benefits” — aka the impact of a recent salary deal granted to sheriff’s deputies by county supervisors, just a few months in front of the November elections.

The labor deal clearly helped one supervisor, Andrew Do, in his re-election bid – with the deputies union investing in a six-figure, independent spending campaign that was crucial on his behalf in a tight race.

Taxpayers, as I warned in a Sept. 5 column the day before the deal was approved, won’t fare as well.

Nowhere will the fiscal bombshell hit harder than South County cities (Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Aliso Viejo), which contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for public safety and are already spending more than 50 percent of their general fund budgets on public safety, according to Supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett.

Bartlett’s public reaction to seeing the spike on a public powerpoint presentation this month was priceless – both because of it’s honesty and lack thereof.

It took a full two hours of distraction before county supervisors were forced to confront this fiscal bombshell.

And then they ran.

That’s before doing the traditional, “who knew?” dance…

Anyone who has not seen the 15-minute discussion should because it explains exactly why government budgets swell and the collective amnesia that takes hold over the real reasons why.

Because there are few reporters to record this kind of budgetary history anymore, tricky votes are easy to hide for politicians. And when bureaucrats have to confront elected officials over the fiscal impacts of their own budget votes, the presentation is always sugar coated.

This presentation is particularly priceless.

Bartlett, who voted for the deputies salary deal and presumably saw cost estimates – $62 million over three years – wonders aloud why department augmentations are spiraling.

“My gosh,” is her reaction when told it’s salary and benefits.

“Alarming.”

Then the budget officials essentially go into fancy budget-talk mode, artfully dancing around expressions like “expenses going up,” clearing throats while these things have to be monitored, smoothed.

Again and again, finance officials almost go as far to call their own projections too conservative, too alarmist.

But then – given that these public sector executives are honest and ethical public servants – they also give the real answers.

“Public protection.”

“That’s where you see the bulk of the number you saw,” said county budget manager Lisa Bohan-Johnston.

County CEO Frank Kim chimes in and lets county supervisors know that those projections won’t look so ugly once they are structurally smoothed out every year. Kim, the ever-sound fiscal manager, announces, “we expect budgets we present to the board will be balanced.”

Just like the last decade, Kim notes. You identify the most critical needs, you defer the others, he added.

County Chief Financial Officer Michelle Aguirre also notes that these are just projections, forecasts. Worst-case scenarios.

Bartlett, in public, defiantly noted that she needed to know the budget impact for her South County contract cities.

Yet shouldn’t Bartlett and her colleagues have asked those questions before the last labor deal?

Here’s the sad truth.

County supervisors just spent every available public tax dollar over the next five years to mostly just fuel deputy sheriff salaries, leaving every other responsibility – such as expanding mental health and homeless spending – with minimum investments.

They are also hoping to bolster reserves (a favorite of Wall Street) while making a $100 million payment over the next two fiscal years to account for county supervisors’ last fiscal mistake when they refinanced the Orange County bankruptcy in 2006 and left a series of critical tax revenues unprotected from an ensuing Sacramento tax grab in 2010.

Most of the time, in Orange County, the 5-year strategic financial plan is mostly seen as a nice document to show places like Wall Street rating agencies how well the county government is being run after the 1994 bankruptcy.

Yet, much like a doctor’s checkup, these financial documents also offer elected officials a chance to adjust behaviors, consider better investments. Confront truth.

The saddest part of this month’s strategic fiscal discussion is that Bartlett was the only one brave enough to even mention the public safety spending spike.

Even sadder was that supervisors only spent a few minutes considering the fiscal implications of their actions.

What did draw considerable discussion was whether it might be a good idea to send county supervisors to New York this coming year to visit the rating agencies and talk about what good fiscal stewards they are.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of County Chief Financial Officer Michelle Aguirre.

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