State Could Intervene After OC Supervisors Halt Census Funds for City and School District

County Supervisor Andrew Do at the Sept. 24, 2019 supervisors meeting.

Orange County supervisors finalized plans this week to cut Census outreach money for the City of Santa Ana and Santa Ana Unified School District – a move city and school district officials called out as retaliation for raising public concerns about a proposed county homeless shelter in their city.

Santa Ana is home to the largest number of hard-to count areas in Orange County for the Census, and a decision Tuesday by county supervisors to formally reject a recommendation for the funds has now prompted blowback from state and federal elected officials.

State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) confirmed in a phone interview Wednesday he’s looking into ways to restore the funding.

“No. 1 is to ensure that those institutions and those individuals that have credibility and close physical and cultural proximity to the potentially undercounted populations, that they get the tools they need to ensure we get a complete count,” said Umberg, who co-chairs the state Senate’s select committee on the 2020 U.S. Census.

“I am very concerned about whether we can get a complete count of Santa Ana,” he added.

“It is my observation and belief that teachers are among the most respected individuals and schools are among the most respected institutions in areas that are susceptible to an undercount,” Umberg said. “Having schools and teachers be messengers to explain to children and their families as to why they [should] not fear being counted, to me makes logical sense.”

With billions of dollars in funding across OC depending on an accurate Census, county officials are distributing about $1.5 million in state money for local agencies and nonprofits to get the word out in communities that are difficult to count.

Santa Ana’s city government and school district were recommended by a county bidding process to receive a total of $225,000 of the funds, to boost outreach efforts in the local community.

That recommendation was overruled on Nov. 25, after county supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee reviewed the proposals with county CEO Frank Kim in private as a board “ad hoc” committee.

Out of eight recipients in their region, the city and school district were the only ones removed.

The reversal prompted loud protests from Santa Ana officials, who criticized the move as politics from Do, who ousted a county commissioner from Santa Ana the day after she joined city and school district officials in publicly raising concerns about a proposed homeless shelter to supervisors on Nov. 19. Do has been a major advocate for the Yale St. shelter, and declined to say if his ouster of Cano was over her public comments.

“If you want to play politics, don’t use our kids as pawns,” said John Palacio, a Santa Ana Unified School District board member, at Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting. He was one of seven speakers on the Census grants, all of whom urged supervisors to return to the county’s original recommendation and grant the funds to Santa Ana.

Do, who was involved in the decision to halt the funds to the city and school district, disputed allegations it was political. He emphasized the decision was because of a policy to not award any Census outreach funds to government agencies.

“We feel that when we try to reach the hard-to-reach population, the inherent distrust of that population of government agencies will reduce our effectiveness,” Do said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“You’re not being singled out,” Do told Santa Ana officials. “This is a policy that was applied countywide. Not a single school district, not a single city, [nor] the county were considered to provide that service.”

But county records raise questions about whether Do was telling the truth to the public about why local funds were cut.

As part of their action Tuesday, supervisors did approve Census outreach funds to the City of Garden Grove, which will be working as a subcontractor.

Do didn’t return phone messages asking why he chose to fund the City of Garden Grove but not Santa Ana, and whether his statement Tuesday was false about not funding any cities.

Santa Ana officials, meanwhile, are livid about the county’s move.

“We came [on Nov. 19], we spoke about the homeless transitional center. The following week, we get a letter that our money’s been rescinded,” said Valerie Amezcua, a Santa Ana Unified school board member.

“It is wrong what you have done. Rescinding the funding – it was wrong and it was politics on your part.”

Congressman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) said the city and school district presented a strong plan that met all of the county’s requirements for the state funding.

“Santa Ana is the hardest to count of all cities in Orange County. The city and SAUSD have recognized this fact, and have prepared a robust effort to do outreach to ensure [an] accurate count of their residents,” Correa said in a letter read aloud Tuesday by his district director.

“There is no logical reason to have taken this funding away from the City of Santa Ana and Santa Ana Unified. I ask you to restore the funding to the city and school district, or immediately return the funding to the state of California, so that they can allocate the funds appropriately.”

The supervisors ultimately rejected those pleas, voting unanimously Tuesday to award the Census outreach grants to nonprofit groups, and the city of Garden Grove, without the city of Santa Ana and Santa Ana Unified School District.

Chaffee, a Democrat who along with Do, a Republican, was part of the committee that gave the direction to remove the city and school district from the funding, said the goal is to do the best possible Census count.

“Sorry for any misunderstanding, but I do hope we can work together – all of us – to make this effective,” Chaffee said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The federal government has significantly reduced the resources it’s providing for the 2020 Census, compared with the 2010 Census, leaving the state to fill in the gap, Umberg said.

“We need to make sure that we don’t have an undercount in Santa Ana,” he said.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].