With the county’s annual budget hearing coming up next Tuesday, to what extent will taxpayers have input on how their money is spent?

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.

County officials are also expecting a potential flood of new state money – not yet in the draft budget – coming to the county in the coming months.

The question now is, what should officials do with all this cash?

And what does the public – the people who pay the taxes – think?

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 the new money on the Sheriff’s Department.

The money would allow the Sheriff’s Department to 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,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee told Voice of OC this 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.”

Supervisor Katrina 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 told Voice of OC.

The other county supervisors did not respond to requests for interviews about the draft budget.

Residents themselves have been weighing in – in response to Voice of OC’s first article on the draft budget.

Among the services residents say they’d like to see the money go towards are local roads, habitat restoration at county parks, buying land for affordable housing, and speeding up the processing of concealed gun permits.

Anaheim resident Wyatt Brunkow told Voice of OC he wants to see the full budget surplus go to streamlining the concealed weapon permits – known as CCWs – “due to the fact the last sheriff, Sandra Hutchins revoked hundreds of permits upon entering office.”

[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.

But it’s already late in the game by the time the county brings the public into the process with the release of their draft budget in mid May.

“The nature of the system is that the budget is pretty much done by the time it gets to us in May,” said Foley, who took office in late March.

“I’ve been frustrated myself in trying to accomplish the goals and priorities of the district based on what I’m hearing from the needs of the cities, because I’m coming into the process so late [after being sworn in],” she added.

While the budget has largely been planned out, supervisors can change it during two rounds of votes this month – as well as quarterly budget adjustment votes that happen every three months.

County officials plan to hold their annual public budget hearing next Tuesday, where any member of the public can testify if they show up in person, followed by a final budget vote by supervisors two weeks later on June 22.

In contrast with many local cities, county officials do not hold a public presentation of their draft budget before the annual budget hearing.

Foley said she wants to see that change – and for the public to get more transparency about their tax dollars.

She said her staff are planning a budget webinar for the public this Friday.

“I would like us to have more community workshops as part of building the budget,” Foley said.

So in the next [budget] cycle, what I’m going to be doing is working with the [chief financial officer] to do community workshops in each city – so that we can make sure that the city representatives have an understanding of how the budget is going to impact or benefit them.”

The current budget proposal – which would take effect July 1 – plans on the county getting $616 million in new federal covid money under the American Rescue Plan Act, which comes this year and next.

But the budget does not have a breakdown of where that money is proposed to go.

In response to questions from Voice of OC, the county’s top executive said last month he can provide such a breakdown this month after calculations are updated.

That’s now in the works, with county staff preparing a presentation slide specifically about the American Rescue Act Plan dollars, county CEO Frank Kim told Voice of OC when asked about it again this week.

The worst financial fears of county officials during the pandemic did not materialize – to their relief.

The county’s usual revenues – mainly from property taxes – are actually increasing by an estimated 3.5%, boosted by fast-growing housing prices that have continued to escalate during the pandemic.

Yet confusion over the plans for that money reaches the supervisor level as well.

Two and a half years into being a supervisor, 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.

Of the county’s budget process, he said:

“It still seems strange.”

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

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