Orange County Supervisors are preparing a wave of new spending from federal COVID bailout dollars, including $75 million for a new public health operations center in Irvine and $40 million for a second nonprofit-run mental health campus.

And all that spending comes from the one-time federal pandemic bailout money. 

County officials haven’t said much publicly about the operations center and second Be Well mental health campus – both of which are slated to be built on county land at the Great Park in Irvine.

Officials are also planning to reinstate or add more than 200 county jobs, largely from the county’s usual revenues streams – which are up significantly from before the pandemic.

The county’s chief executive tells Voice of OC the operations center will help bring together a wide variety of functions that have been spread across the county – like the public health lab, the protective equipment warehouse and staff who work with emergency responders.

“We believe that it makes more sense to co-locate many of those functions together,” county CEO Frank Kim said in response to a reporter’s question at a Friday news briefing.

“So, there is a warehouse that we have been utilizing on the county’s property at the Great Park. And attached to that is a plan where we intend to develop a … public health center.”

The spending is disclosed in a budget update that’s up for approval by Orange County Supervisors Tuesday.

County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson didn’t have information Monday afternoon on whether there’s been any public presentations about the planned facilities now slated to get $115 million total in taxpayer funds.

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The second Be Well campus was approved last September in a matter of seconds, without public discussion by county supervisors.

Those two projects – along with a $20 million county contribution to a veterans cemetery – are slated to be funded by the federal coronavirus recovery dollars under the American Rescue Plan Act’s “revenue loss” category – while county tax revenues are up higher than before the pandemic.

The county’s ARPA spending plan also includes $133 million for “other board directed uses,” though it’s not clear what that means.

It’s not defined in the public spending document up for approval Tuesday, and the five county supervisors didn’t return messages for comment on the spending plan, including what the $133 million is for “other board directed uses.”

The spending comes as county revenues are way up – with year-over-year revenues up 18 percent in the fiscal year ending this June.

Plus, the county’s getting an infusion of $616 million this year and next in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, on top of the $554 million it got last year in federal CARES Act relief funds.

In addition to the health campus spending, the county is planning to add or reinstate 217 job positions – 115 of which were deleted last year as part of early retirement cash-outs to cut costs during the pandemic.

Among the 102 positions being added – that were not deleted last year – the biggest is 25 people for mental health crisis response, funded by the Mental Health Services Act

The largest reinstatements are set to be at the Social Services Agency (31 jobs) and DA’s office (16 jobs).

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Taxpayer advocates like Carolyn Cavecche have cautioned against using any of the federal recovery money for ongoing costs since it’s one-time money.

“Our fear is that cities are going to use this as a windfall to fund projects that are going to need ongoing funding,” said Cavecche, president of the Orange County Taxpayers Association, in a recent interview.

“This is great news for them to backfill their budgets, but it’ll be gone in a couple years and [taxpayers] need to understand,” Cavecche said.

One of the supervisors’ largest categories for spending the COVID recovery dollars – $40 million – is for “public protection” salaries and benefits

That typically refers mostly to sheriff’s deputies, whose union is the largest campaign spender on supervisors’ elections.

Sheriff staff have the lowest self-reported vaccination rate among county employees, at just 16 percent as of two weeks ago.

For months, county supervisors have been out of step with cities like Santa Ana by not inviting public input or holding a special meeting or agenda item to explain the plans and invite input from residents.

Months after deciding how to spend the money, county officials recently unveiled a new website – which they’re required to do under federal rules – for the public to weigh in on how to spend the more than $600 million in bailout funds.

The last time the county got pandemic bailout money — which totaled $554 million last year — officials didn’t disclose the specifics of where most of it went until months after those secret decisions were made.

Earlier this year, Voice of OC found that the county spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on secretly-approved contracts during the pandemic that never appeared on public agendas.

Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do 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 at Do and the county, as residents and taxpayer advocates demanded that elected representatives be more transparent.

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

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