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Orange County’s elected supervisors gave final approval this week to nearly $8 billion in taxpayer spending on law enforcement, homelessness, mental health and other services that makes no changes to what county staff recommended for spending.

Supervisors didn’t have any public discussion about the budget Tuesday before casting their votes unanimously to approve the spending plan.

After hearing from public commenters – as is required by state law – Supervisor Lisa Bartlett made the motion to approve the final budget.

“Any opposition? Item passes,” said Chairman Andrew Do.

The exchange took 6 seconds.

The following item – putting a measure on the ballot that extends the supervisors’ own term limits – got 12 minutes of debate among the supervisors before they voted 3-2 to put it on the ballot.

Earlier this month, the supervisors’ quiet annual public budget hearing left it unclear what impact the elected officials in charge of it actually make.

[Read: Who Really Decides How Tax Dollars Are Spent in Orange County?]

Much of the budget discussions – considering how to spend billions in taxpayer dollars – increasingly occur behind closed doors.

By the time the public was brought into the discussion two weeks ago, the budget was almost all sorted out.

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At that June 8 hearing, OC supervisors took up the $8 billion budget and gave their support without much debate – making no changes to what county staff recommended for departments’ spending.

One department after another, county supervisors approved staff’s recommendations for billions of dollars in spending, without any changes.

Their only public adjustment was a shift of about 5 percent of the new federal coronavirus recovery money – from being undesignated to instead fill in lost revenue for existing county services.

Local residents did speak about the budget at this week’s meeting – and waited 7 hours to do so, after Do held the budget approval near the end of the supervisors’ regular meeting.

The three residents who spoke on the item called on supervisors to be more transparent about the budget, involve the public more in the budgeting process and shift part of law enforcement spending to mental health treatment services and housing.

“Please listen to the community. Involve us. Create a participatory budgeting process.”

Karen Hernandez, Anaheim resident

“Could it be that the law enforcement receives additional funds for their continued financial support of your re-election campaign?” said another resident who identified herself as Olivia.

“You continue to overfund the OC sheriffs and police departments because they help back your funds for your election campaign, while you criminalize poverty and neglect human rights…and the needs of the communities that you were voted in to serve,” said another resident, who didn’t provide her name.

Other residents have told Voice of OC in emails and social media comments that they’d like to see more funding go to roads, county parks, land for affordable housing, addressing homelessness and speeding up the processing times of concealed gun permits.

A Chapman University survey conducted earlier this year found housing affordability and homelessness the biggest overall concerns for OC residents.

Residents were more concerned about housing affordability than the pandemic, survey results show.

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The budget sets new funding levels for everything from jails to child protective services to mental health and homeless services. 

The biggest spending increase is an extra $85 million to the Sheriff’s Department from new unrestricted money, to maintain current services.

And the county is eyeing a wave of $616 million in new federal cash coming their way that’s supposed to help communities weather the pandemic – along with another wave of state money expected to come to the county later this year.

So far, officials are planning on spending about $200 million of the recovery money on existing services that saw their revenue drop during the pandemic, and about $85 million of new unrestricted money on the Sheriff’s Department.

The $85 million increase would let the Sheriff’s Department maintain its existing services, officials say, amid a series of pay raises county supervisors previously authorized.

County officials also are talking about whether to further expand mental health and addiction recovery services, particularly around homelessness, but the specifics haven’t yet been worked out.

On top of that, the county is projecting $40 million in additional public safety tax money and $36 million in extra unrestricted funds that can be spent on any government services.

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County supervisors approved a series of budget recommendations from county CEO Frank Kim, including:

  • An extra $85 million to the Sheriff’s Department from new unrestricted money, to maintain current services. Otherwise, the department said it will have to cut 342 positions, mostly deputy sheriffs.
  • Additional $8 million in new annual spending from unrestricted dollars to add 37 jail medical staff under the Health Care Agency to expand mental health services for inmates who are diagnosed with mental illnesses.
  • $7 million to the Public Defender’s Office from new unrestricted money, to maintain current services.
  • About $6 million total per year in new federal and state restricted dollars to the Social Services Agency, to add 24 positions to “meet State and Federal mandates and quality control requirements,” 21 positions under the CalWORKs welfare-to-work program, nin positions to implement a welfare computer system called CalSAWS, and another five positions under the Children and Family Services.
  • About $400,000 in new money for the county Office of Independent Review to add two attorneys to review specific incidents at the Sheriff’s Department and other county agencies, analyze systematic problems and recommend ways to fix them.
  • About $900,000 in new money for the OC Parks department, to add 12 positions like office technicians, and maintenance workers “to facilitate access to various [county] Park facilities, engage with visitors through public programs, perform maintenance activities, and provide administrative support.”
  • About $200,000 to buy three replacement trucks for animal services under OC Animal Care.
  • About $100,000 to the District Attorney’s Office from vehicle license fees, to add a paralegal and handle extra evidence disclosure from the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force.

The budget itself also notes:

  • Sheriff staff costs are growing faster than the public safety tax revenues that support the department, prompting the county to use unrestricted dollars to cover the shortfall.
  • The sheriff is cutting other costs to make up for the growing staff compensation, including by delaying filling vacant positions and reducing or delaying maintenance of buildings and equipment purchases.

The new budget, which goes into effect July 1, is slated to be changed on a quarterly basis by supervisors.

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

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