Over the past year, Orange County officials have spent hundreds of millions in federal coronavirus recovery dollars – all without a public presentation about where it’s all gone so far.
Taxpayer advocates are calling for full transparency on the spending.
“These are taxpayer funds and people have a right to know whether they’re being used for new programs, or to cover old costs. And whether they’re being used in the best possible way,” said Susan Shelley, vice president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
More than $200 million went to secretly-approved contracts that supervisors got updated on, but not the public – until Voice of OC obtained records about it earlier this year.
County officials have said residents can file Public Records Act requests to see the spending, though Shelley says that’s not enough.
“Public records request is appropriate if there’s an individual question on one issue. But this is a wide area of concern for all taxpayers in the county. And this is not something where individual taxpayers should have to go file paperwork to find out how the money’s being spent,” Shelley said.
The only comprehensive public information on how the money has been spent has come from public records requests filed by Voice of OC for spending documents.
Those records revealed county supervisors had allowed staff to secretly approve over $200 million in coronavirus contracts – which supervisors got updated about but not the public.
Records obtained also showed supervisors allocated about $90 million of the coronavirus funds last year to the Sheriff’s Department, with the vast majority paying for salaries and benefits of existing staff at the county jails.
“The county should be transparent, not put that responsibility on individuals to file papers and then wait,” Shelley said.
Voice of OC asked all five county supervisors why there hasn’t been a public presentation of where the coronavirus dollars have gone. Most didn’t return the messages.
Supervisor Doug Chaffee noted the supervisors have publicly approved many – but not all – of the contracts funded by the coronavirus dollars.
But he acknowledged there’s been no public accounting of where the federal dollars have all gone, and said that’s coming.
“There will be at some point an accounting” of where the money has gone, said Chaffee, who was the only supervisor to comment.
Carolyn Cavecche, who leads the Orange County Taxpayers Association, wants to see county officials detail how they plan to spend the next batch of money – $616 million from the American Rescue Plan Act – once the federal spending rules are finalized.
“I’d like to see them call it out,” Cavecche said. “We’re not talking about a two-hour presentation, it can be done very quickly. But just not have to search through supplemental agendas.”
She added that It shouldn’t be “hidden on page 152…in an addendum,” noting the way county officials often bury key information deep within agenda attachments.
County staff say they’ll be publishing the CARES Act spending online later this month, more than a year after they started spending the half-billion dollars in those funds.
“Departments are in the process of submitting final claims” for the federal coronavirus money for last year and this year, said county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson in response to questions from Voice of OC.
“We will post info in August on our website.”
The county supervisors’ approach to the Covid spending stands in contrast with cities like Santa Ana, which have held public sessions on the coronavirus funds and invited public input.
“I’m really proud of the effort that the [City] Council and the staff have made to provide forums and opportunities for the public to comment on what their priorities and expectations are of these federal monies that are intended to address and cure some of the problems that Covid presented to our community,” Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento told Voice of OC.
“That said, it’s disappointing to see other agencies, like the county, that have received much more money than the city has – and they haven’t had as robust an effort to [invite] comment from the public, engage the public, in how these moneys should be allocated and appropriated,” he added.
“We hope that the public’s engagement will help us dictate the public policy direction on how we should expend public funds.”
Asked why the county hasn’t asked for public input on the coronavirus dollars, like Santa Ana has, Chaffee cited the likelihood he and the other supervisors would get yelled at by the public.
“I don’t know [that] it takes a special meeting. Because then you know these same people yelling at you are the ones that are going to show up,” Chaffee said. “But we certainly welcome any reasonable suggestions. It probably needs to be in writing.”
Chaffee said he hopes for resident input on the spending.
The public’s welcome to say, ‘you’ve got all these hundreds of millions, here’s what I’d like you to do [with] that,’ ” he said. “There’s an open invitation to do that.”
County officials are on track to receive more than $1 billion total in federal funds to respond to coronavirus, with about half of it already spent from the CARES Act.
Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do has 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, as residents and taxpayer advocates demanded that elected representatives be more transparent.
Following a torrent of public criticism sparked by Voice of OC’s revelations, Orange County’s top officials backed up in May and said they’re ending that practice when it comes to new projects.
The secretive authority, however, has continued 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.
While some of individual contracts now appear on public agendas, county supervisors have yet to provide a public accounting of where the coronavirus dollars have gone so far.
The sheer scale of money coming to the county and other local governments is massive, noted Shelley.
“This is an unprecedented scale of federal assistance to California,” she said.
“And we should be able to hold everyone accountable for how that money is spent.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.