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Reading Orange County’s proposed budget, you’d be forgiven if you think the county is defunding the police.

It shows a massive $79 million drop in Sheriff’s Department spending out of the unrestricted funds directly controlled by county supervisors.

But that’s not what’s happening at all. In fact, sheriff spending is increasing.

That apparent shortfall is more than filled by $85 million in separate spending – that’s not mentioned in the draft budget.

The public can only find the $85 million deep within a totally separate document known as as “augmentation requests” that’s not in the draft budget.

It’s a unusual quirk of the obscure way the county shows its budget numbers – where the public has to go through multiple documents and manually add together numbers to see how much is proposed for each department.

Some say that makes it difficult for the public to actually be part of the conversation about how their tax dollars are spent.

“It’s really just how they do this weird ‘augmentation’ restore and expand process,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley, who took office in late March, when asked about it by Voice of OC.

“The augmentation discussion I think needs to get more clarified for the public, so that people understand what it means…‘Restore augmentation’ – it’s like an oxymoron, right? It doesn’t even make sense grammatically.”

“My suggestion [is] that we create a presentation that an 8th grader can understand. That should be our goal,” she added.

“If an 8th grader can understand it, everybody can understand it.”

She was the only county supervisor to respond to questions about whether the public deserves more clarity about how their tax dollars are spent.

But Foley isn’t the only supervisor to say the county’s budget approach is complicated and confusing.

Two and a half years into being a supervisor, Supervisor Doug Chaffee said he’s still getting used to the county’s budget approach and didn’t yet understand how much new money in total the county was expecting next fiscal year.

“It still seems strange,” Chaffee said of the county’s budget process.

In their budget plan for the new fiscal year – which starts July 1 – Orange County supervisors are eying a surge in extra money coming their way, amid skyrocketing property tax collections and new federal Covid recovery money that the county has wide latitude to spend.

It includes a whopping $616 million in new federal recovery money (half of which has not yet been designated), as well as projections of $40 million in additional public safety tax money and $36 million in extra unrestricted funds that can be spent on any government services.

In the budget process, County CEO Frank Kim is recommending:

  • An extra $85 million to the Sheriff’s Department from new unrestricted money, to maintain current services. Otherwise, the department says it will have to cut 342 positions, mostly deputy sheriffs.
  • Addition $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 lik 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.

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 authorized.

County officials also are talking internally about whether to expand mental health and addiction recovery services, particularly around homelessness.

“I’d like to significantly expand those kinds of services,” Chaffee told Voice of OC last week, referring to county mental health crisis response teams known as CAT and PERT.

“There isn’t enough of it. It’s hardly 5% of what we need,” he added.

“When you have a social service issue, it’s a crisis. And unfortunately the people who get the call are police, and it would be helpful if we had a social service person there to help with the response,” he continued.

“That’s something I want to see if we can’t push.”

Foley said she’d like to see the county step up to pay for mental health crisis response services that cities are now footing the bill for amid frustration about slow response times from the county teams.

Cities are paying for it despite them not receiving mental health funding, while the county does.

“I do not think that cities should have to fund mental health services…the county should be responsible for funding all mental health services for every city in Orange County,” Foley said.

She said the county budget process is largely the byproduct of the complicated way counties are required to display their budget numbers for accounting purposes – but that nothing prevents the county from creating a document that makes the budget numbers easier to understand.

To bring the public more into the fold about the budget, Foley said she plans to hold regular community workshops and outreach starting in August when the budget process starts – something county supervisors have not done in recent years.

[Here’s a link to the county’s draft budget and a link to the county’s proposal for the extra money.]

[What do you think? See anything interesting? What do you think the money should go? Contact our reporter at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.]

Members of the public can speak at the budget hearing if they show up in person to the 9:30 a.m. session next Tuesday, June 8.

There’s also an option for written comments to be read aloud at the meeting by county officials, if residents with a disability email County Counsel Leon Page noting their disability makes them unable to come speak in person at the meeting.

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

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