A wave of more than $1 billion in new coronavirus recovery money is coming from the feds directly to Orange County’s local governments.
The County of Orange is not – while it expects to receive much more money under the federal American Rescue Plan, totaling over $600 million.
County supervisors continue to spend the money in a piecemeal way, bringing up individual proposals by supervisors for approval with no invitation for public input on spending the overall package of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The supervisors’ plans include $15 million in spending last week on businesses and meal programs, and another potential $15 million up for approval today to be divided among each supervisor to distribute to businesses in their district.
Taxpayer advocates say the public – who’s paying the tax bills – should be part of the process.
“It’s extremely important for the county to be transparent with the public – not just the minimal [of] putting it on the agenda, but outreach to talk about what they’re doing” and inviting public discussion, said Susan Shelley, vice president of communications at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
None of the five county supervisors returned phone messages for comment on why they’re not inviting public input on the overall spending.
“I can understand that they do not want to present the opportunity as if all the money could be directed by public discussion,” Shelley added.
“They have bills to pay and they know what’s in the budget and what’s underfunded. So some deference is certainly appropriate. But they should be as transparent as possible, so the public knows if this is going to be spent on old expenses or on new priorities.”
Santa Ana officials have said they value bringing the public into the discussion.
“We absolutely want the public’s input on the use of these funds,” Mayor Vicente Sarmiento told Voice of OC.
The American Recovery Act money is scheduled to come directly to local agencies – with $616 million coming to the county and another $700 million or more to cities, divided based on population.
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.
It likely will take multiple generations to pay off the extra federal debt being taken on to pay for this new round of spending, Shelley noted.
“When the federal government takes on debt, that’s going to be [paid] by the next generation” – and their childrens’ generation, she said.
The last time the county got Covid recovery money – which totaled $554 million last year – officials didn’t disclose the specifics of where most it went until months after the fact.
When residents were alerted as to how funding was spent, questions mounted.
Supervisors allocated about $90 million of the funds to the Sheriff’s Department, with the vast majority paying for salaries and benefits of existing staff at the county jails.
Voice of OC also revealed earlier this year that the county spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on secretly-approved contracts during the pandemic that never appeared on public agendas.
Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do defended the secret contracting process, complaining publicly that reporters were asking too many questions and seeking too many public records.
That ended up prompting a public backlash at Do and the county, as residents and taxpayer advocates demanded that elected representatives be more transparent.
After Voice of OC posted the spending records, readers questioned spending like $1.1 million to the Angels baseball team company, owned by billionaire Arte Moreno, for suicide prevention ads.
Following a torrent of public criticism sparked by Voice of OC’s revelations, Orange County’s top officials backed up two weeks ago and said they’re ending that practice when it comes to new projects.
The secretive authority, however, will continue for existing projects.
At the urging of Do, existing multi-million-dollar projects can still be secretly extended and expanded by county CEO Frank Kim, without their text ever appearing on the supervisors’ public agendas.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.