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As county government officials in OC gear up to spend $8 billion in taxpayer money this next fiscal year, their quiet annual public budget hearing this month left it unclear what impact – if any – the elected officials in charge of it actually make.

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.

OC supervisors took up the $8 billion budget and approved it without much debate – making no changes to what county staff recommended for departments’ spending.

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.

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

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Some observers note that the budget process is by its very nature a long, drawn out negotiation that in the end can yield a public session that doesn’t reflect all the give and take throughout the process. 

“I think the Board of Supervisors – the members of the board – have been so knee deep in this [budget process] for so many months, that they sometimes forget that the public hasn’t been privy to all of the behind the scenes conversations, the ad hoc conversations, the…elected department head conversations,” said Carolyn Cavecche, president and CEO of the Orange County Taxpayers Association.

Given the prospect that elected officials shape budgets internally but not always in public, Voice of OC asked each supervisor to name their biggest accomplishment in the proposed $8 billion budget.

Most supervisors did not return messages seeking comment. Two did.

Supervisor Katrina Foley, who was elected in March when the budget development was wrapping up, said she’s been trying to make the budget process more accessible to the public, as well as add a Fly Quiet program to reduce noise from smaller planes at John Wayne Airport and get the county to pay for mental health response that cities are now paying for.

“The cities should not be responsible for homeless services and mental health, behavioral health services. That is the role of county government,” said Foley, noting the county does get mental health funding but not cities.

“And that’ll be my focus over the next year. Bring those programs, services, and expenses back under the county umbrella,” she added, noting the county projects a $25 million surplus next year in mental health dollars from the Mental Health Services Act.

Another supervisor, Lisa Bartlett, responded with an emailed statement via her spokeswoman, saying her biggest accomplishment in the upcoming budget was making sure the county safety net and core services are funded.

As for a tangible change in the upcoming budget, Bartlett cited a shift of $0.6 million out of the $8 billion budget – equivalent to about 0.0075% of the total budget.

It’s an initiative by herself and Do to create a county Office of Suicide Prevention, which has $600,000 in the upcoming budget for the nonprofit Mind OC for outreach and other services.

“As we emerge from the global pandemic, it is vitally important to me that we have additional funding to address the significant increase in mental and behavioral health issues that we continue to see throughout the county,” Bartlett said.

The county’s annual spending plan was developed with private input from county supervisors before the spending plan was made public.

“This [budget] development cycle…started in December, concluded toward the end of March. And the budget workbooks were printed and made available to the public on May 20,” county CEO Frank Kim said at the June 8 budget hearing.

County staff receive guidance on the budget during public as well as meetings with supervisors that are not open to the public, according to information provided by county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson in response to Voice of OC’s questions.

“The CEO also receives guidance as part of ad hoc meetings on mental health,” as well as public meetings. The “ad hoc” meetings are not open to the public, and involve Do, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, and county staff.

Foley says she’ll be holding community workshops on the budget in the coming months, to bring the public into the fold as next year’s budget process kicks off in August with the county’s strategic financial plan.

“What my office will do, beginning in this next cycle is, as we begin in the next step of working through the financial strategic plan and gathering all the inputs [of what departments want], “we will have a series of community workshops.”

“I’m going to do my best to have community engagement to the extent possible.”

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County CEO Frank Kim did not respond to a message asking what the biggest item was that each supervisor changed in the upcoming budget.

Most of the county’s $8 billion in annual funding is restricted state and federal dollars, though supervisors do have direct control over about $930 million in unrestricted spending, plus $616 million in federal coronavirus relief money coming to the county over the next year

The proposed budget includes tens of millions of dollars in extra spending that received no public questioning from county supervisors:

  • 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.
  • An 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.

The June 8 budget session was the main opportunity for the public and county supervisors to publicly discuss the proposed budget.

It comes back to supervisors for final approval on Tuesday.

Cavecche noted that with additional waves of money coming to the county later in the fiscal year – as well as more clarity from the feds about how the recovery money can be spent – the budget likely could see some major adjustments throughout the fiscal year.

“This is just a starting point for everybody,” she said, adding that the wave of one-time dollars “should not be used to create new programs.”

“There are so many moving parts to this budget…I think this is just the start of what’s going to be a year-long process for the County of Orange for our budget.”

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

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