Orange County officials are inviting the public to let them know how they think hundreds of millions in coronavirus bailout money should be spent — after county supervisors already largely decided how to spend it.
The county also — for the first time — published data this week on how they’re spending the new COVID funds, with the largest category – $40 million – going to “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.
The next biggest category of coronavirus relief money spending — $20 million — is for Orange County’s first veterans cemetery, under direction supervisors gave in July.
The overall spending approach was decided months ago, with supervisors authorizing a spending plan in June for the $616 million in new coronavirus money the county is receiving this year and next year under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
In the runup to those votes, Voice of OC found the county was 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 this week unveiled a new website for the public to weigh in on how to spend the more than $600 million in bailout funds.
[Click here to see how the county is spending ARPA funds, here to submit a public comment, and here to see the online comments that have been submitted so far.]
Supervisors could still change their plans for the funds, since most of the money hasn’t been allocated yet and half of it still hasn’t arrived.
Altogether, a wave of more than $1 billion in new coronavirus recovery money is coming from the federal government directly to Orange County’s local governments.
Some — like the city of Santa Ana — conducted surveys and held town halls months ago, asking residents directly how to spend its $143 million share and seeking input in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
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.
When residents were alerted as to how funding was spent, questions mounted.
Supervisors allocated about $90 million of the funds to the Sheriff’s Department, with the vast majority paying for salaries and benefits of existing staff at the county jails.
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.
In their announcement this week, county staff said they’ll be holding a public workshop on Sept. 30 “to educate the public” on the county’s budget process and ARPA spending.
It’s scheduled to be held by county budget staff indoors at 1:30 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors chambers and an adjacent meeting room.
The announcement didn’t say if residents can comment at the meeting, and if so whether people can comment live remotely.
But in response to questions from Voice of OC, county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said there will be an opportunity for public comment, with the details for remote comments still being worked out.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.