Orange County is asking the public to tell it what to do with $616 million in federal COVID-19 bailout money – after supervisors already decided how to spend most of the money – now that federal officials are requiring more transparency about the money.

Local residents are taking them up on it.

Requests have been pouring in, with residents laying scores of community health needs they want funded by the massive amount of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

Many are asking for homeless housing, vaccination campaigns, rental assistance for those who’ve lost jobs, public park improvements and bike trails.

Instead, county officials are spending much of the money on Sheriff’s Department salaries and a government office complex, which are two of their biggest line items for the federal bailout spending.

Several residents have submitted comments questioning why the Sheriff’s Department is getting more Covid money from the county than relief programs.

“This just seems like a ploy to increase pension and salary for people who don’t even want to get vaccinated. Not a single dime should go to the sheriff’s department. Please fund small businesses and health protection services,” wrote Ryan Labhart.

Sheriff staff had the lowest self-reported vaccination rates among county employees, as of the last available data in August.

“How in the world do you justify spending nearly $28 million more on the Sheriff/Coroners department than on all the other relief programs COMBINED — for which this money is intended — to help PEOPLE and BUSINESSES stay healthy and recover from the pandemic?” added a commenter who provided their name as Amy C.

She said the money should instead be invested directly into the community.

“To the people and businesses that suffered and are suffering hardships is where the money SHOULD have gone and where I suggest you put future funds toward, NOT the Sheriff’s department which has done NOTHING to help keep people safe from COVID.”

[Click here to read the public comments on the ARPA spending.]

Residents also criticized the county for deciding how to spend most of the money before asking for public input – an approach that stands in stark contrast with cities like Santa Ana that invited public input months ago before making their decisions.

Teresa Gordon-Grisenti wrote that it’s “disingenuous to request comments for concluded business.”

“These matters should have been openly and publicly discussed,” Gordon-Grisenti added.

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With federal government rules requiring more transparency on the bailout spending, county officials hosted their first and only public workshop on it last Thursday – after supervisors decided how to spend most of the money.

Before taking questions from the public, county officials spent an hour giving a detailed explanation of the county’s annual budget process.

The first 50 minutes of the presentation had nothing to do with the new COVID dollars, but rather the details of county budgeting – with definitions of terms like “expand augmentation requests.”

After the hour-long presentation, no one from the public was in queue on the phone line to ask questions.

Ultimately, three residents spoke – one in person and two over the phone.

The in-person speaker said she was diagnosed with bipolar and multiple personality disorder, and asked if the county is open to creating a department to advocate for people who are denied mental health services.

County staff asked her to submit her idea online, to be forwarded to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

The next resident to speak was Santa Ana resident Tim Johnson, who was calling in.

Johnson asked if any of the one-time ARPA money was being used to fund ongoing costs like staff salaries – something taxpayer advocates caution against.

The county’s chief financial officer, Michelle Aguirre, noted $4 million of the bailout dollars are going to restore jobs the county eliminated last year with voluntary early retirement incentives.

But departments have told not to plan on any more ARPA dollars for those positions next fiscal year, she said.

Johnson later told Voice of OC it was difficult to get in the phone queue to ask a question, which he said took multiple attempts at pressing 1 and then 0.

The third and final resident to speak was Steve McNally, a county Mental Health Board member and Costa Mesa resident who questioned if county officials asked for public input before deciding how hundreds of millions in COVID dollars would be spent.

“What public comments were ever asked for ahead of the allocation?” McNally asked.

Aguirre responded: “There wasn’t a public comment related to that piece, because we knew that departments needed to be able to respond to the pandemic.”

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County officials now have a website for people to submit comments, which Aguirre said will continue to be read by officials until the ARPA dollars are fully spent.

About 30 minutes into questions from the public, county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said time was wrapping up – meaning officials allotted an hour for their own presentation and just half an hour for public questions.

During her staff presentation, Aguirre said county officials – including the sheriff and health officials – are working on supporting homeless people with services so they don’t keep ending up in jail.

No further details were disclosed about the effort, which officials are calling OC Cares.

”Ideally, through OC Cares, we will be able to provide individuals in our system of care with the services they need to become self-sufficient and to stay out of our criminal justice system,” Aguirre said.

“And over time we’d like to be able to reduce the amount of discretionary [spending] in our public protection area, and shift it over to our community services area.”

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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 County of Orange did not.

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.

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.

Questions soon mounted after residents found out about the secret spending.

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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