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How will more than a billion dollars in new Covid relief money be spent in Orange County? And will the public be brought into the discussion early, or towards the end after the plan has been mostly already decided in private?

Those are two of the key questions facing local city and county officials in Orange County, as they prepare to receive an estimated $1.3 billion from the new federal coronavirus relief signed into law this month.

It’s scheduled to come directly to local agencies – with $616 million coming to the county and another $700 million or more estimated to go to cities, based on population.

And there’s a wide variety of approaches for when the public will be brought into the discussion.

Santa Ana – OC’s second most-populous city – already is bringing the public into the fold this month, with an introduction about the money last week at a public City Council meeting and an outreach meeting for public input slated for later this month, according to city officials.

The first input meeting later this month will be part of the city’s budget sessions where the public provides input, City Manager Kristine Ridge told Voice of OC.

Santa Ana expects to receive about $143 million in the new stimulus money.

“We absolutely want the public’s input on the use of these funds,” Mayor Vicente Sarmiento told Voice of OC.

“It really is about spending the money to protect and recover our community from this pandemic,” Ridge added in an interview.

It’s a different story at the county when it comes to bringing the public into the fold.

County officials plan to wait until May, when their proposal for the money is already largely hashed out, before getting public input on the draft as part of their usual budget process.

“Everything at some point must be public. But you have to present a plan for the public to consider. Otherwise it’s not going to be very organized,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee told Voice of OC in an interview.

“It would be a lot of special interest groups, if you just turn it loose. So I think we need to develop a comprehensive plan, and let input come from the public.”

Asked about concerns that special interest groups would have even more influence if the plan is developed behind the scenes, Chaffee said he thinks county supervisors will first “develop broad categories” for spending the money, followed by specific uses.

“I don’t think the [county] budget process is going to change, just because we’ve got his money from the American Rescue Plan,” Supervisor Don Wagner told Voice of OC, referring to the name of the new federal relief money law.

“The process has been – in terms of budget – is something we’ve been doing for years. And I don’t see that changing just because this year some of the money is coming from the federal budget…So I’m not anticipating any changes.”

In OC’s largest city of Anaheim, the city manager will not do an interview about the new stimulus money and what the city’s process will be for deciding how to spend it, according to city spokesman Mike Lyster.

He didn’t give a reason why there could be no interview with the city manager, Jim Vanderpool, who also is president of the Orange County City Managers Association. Lyster didn’t respond to follow-up messages asking if that’s a City Council-approved policy.

It’s unclear when Irvine – OC’s third-largest city by population – will involve the public.

Mayor Farrah Khan said the city expects to receive about $53 million, which “will be discussed at a future council meeting.”

She didn’t say when that meeting will be, nor answer follow-up messages asking if public input on the money will be sought before the city has already developed its draft budget.

“I think we first need to review any budget deficit that we have, programs [and] services that were affected, and go from there,” Khan told Voice of OC in a text message.

The new wave of money is more than twice what came to local governments from the first Covid relief bill, known as the CARES Act. And it’s slated to come in two installments – half in the coming weeks and the other half sometime in the next year.

While the specific spending rules haven’t yet been released by the U.S. Treasury, officials expect to have wider latitude than the CARES Act to use the new money – including for backfilling revenue that declined during the pandemic.

Ultimately, it’s up to the elected officials to make the final decisions on how the money is spent.

Two county supervisors – and another who’s about to be sworn in – responded to requests for comment on how they want the county to spend the new stimulus money.

Katrina Foley, the newly-elected county supervisor who plans to take office on Friday, told Voice of OC she wants the new aid money to be prioritized on five services:

  • “Staff vaccine sites for expanded hours, allocate to business grants for small businesses and nonprofit sectors closed during extended periods of time,”
  • “Rent, housing initiatives, and the costs related to hiring social workers to help to move people off the streets and out of the parks and into housing”
  • “Mental health services for students and families impacted by the pandemic”
  • “Grants to reimburse families in need for the costs of funeral expenses for family members who died due to Covid”
  • “Support for work force development initiatives to create new and supplement existing earn and learn apprentice programs for the incarcerated, students, and those who lost their jobs during the pandemic.”

“The funds should first be targeted to [Covid] related relief for constituents impacted, then recovery,” Foley said.

Wagner told Voice of OC he expects the money – among other things – will go toward fighting the virus, including testing, vaccinations, and protective equipment – as well as backfilling lost county revenues.

“There’s no question that’s what we’re going to be using some of this money for,” Wagner said, adding much of it will go towards “making sure we’re protecting as many people as we can.”

Chaffee said he wants to see the money help continue the fight against Covid, help small businesses that have been affected by the pandemic, and help develop broadband internet in the community.

“First and foremost we have to continue our Covid fight. And it’s unknown how long that is going to last,” he told Voice of OC in the interview.

The other two supervisors didn’t return phone messages for comment.

Santa Ana’s mayor said he’d like to see the funds help those most at need in his city.

“A possible economic stimulus targeting Santa Ana’s neediest is one option.  We can require that stimulus voucher or card to be redeemed only in Santa Ana to provide an economic boost to our local businesses,” Sarmiento told Voice of OC in a text message.

“Another thought is to commission a feasibility study to understand the opportunities and challenges of creating our own Public Health Department,” he added.

“Unfortunately, what was made painfully clear from this pandemic, is that the County was not able to effectively address the complex public health needs of our community.”

Lastly, Sarmiento said he wants to see the money be invested in infrastructure, “including bridging the digital divide, hiring back our city employees that were furloughed as a result of the pandemic, additional rental assistance and investing in youth programs.”

Just how the billion dollars-plus money will be distributed – and when the public will be brought into the fold – will be playing out in the coming weeks and months.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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