Orange County’s local officials received over $1 billion from the federal government in COVID relief dollars designed to respond to the disease, help the local economy recover and keep services going.
But there’s a wide range of approaches on whether to get public input – and how much officials are revealing about how they spent the money.
Some cities – like Santa Ana – rolled out the welcome mat to public opinion, while others declined to discuss hundreds of millions of dollars in detail.
The county’s largest city – Anaheim – would not discuss how they spent millions in federal tax dollars designed to help stimulate the local economy when asked about it by Voice of OC.
Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said there was no information available on where the money went.
“It has gone toward uninterrupted service at libraries, community centers, public works and public safety. While not broken down specifically, our budget is the best indicator of where the money has gone,” Lyster said in an email last Wednesday.
But the budget doesn’t break down the dollars of where it actually went.
Anaheim lost more money due to the pandemic than any other city in the state aside from San Francisco, according to a report from the California state auditor’s office, which pinned most of the $88 million in losses on the city’s decimated hotel and sales tax from a lack of tourism.
According to that same report, the city picked up $106 million in support from the federal government, but there’s been no public discussion on where any of that cash went.
Meanwhile, almost every other city in Orange County has released how they’re planning on investing their relief cash from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), with some including itemized lists for public review.
Taxpayer advocates say the public deserves a full accounting of where every dollar has gone.
”It’s an awful lot of money with very little oversight,” said Susan Shelley, vice president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, in an interview with Voice of OC.
“Absolutely the public deserves detail” on how the funds are spent, she added. “It may not be possible to get the details out in the first week. but there is a point where the public is entitled to a full report – an audited report – of where the spending has gone.”
For the first round of federal COVID dollars – $554 million from the CARES Act – county officials have posted a one-page overview of how much each county department spent.
But they have not posted details of how those departments spent the funds – like which contractors got how much – despite the spending happening months ago.
Voice of OC asked county spokespeople for that info for the top county departments that received the money, but as of a week later on Dec. 22, officials had still not provided it.
The county departments that received the most CARES Act dollars were the Health Care Agency ($167 million), Sheriff’s Department ($146 million) and Social Services Agency ($28 million).
The vast majority of the Health Care Agency’s CARES Act spending was on contracts with companies and nonprofits, though the county’s public data does not say what those contracts were for. At the Sheriff’s Department, the vast majority went to salaries and benefits for jail deputies.
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said the county needs to be detailing its COVID spending online.
“Every dollar should be accounted for, and there should be some kind of a public link where the community can go and track the expenses. That seems to be the least we could do,” said Foley, adding she’s been told the county is committing to more financial transparency online next year.
The other county supervisors didn’t return phone messages for comment.
For the second round of COVID dollars arriving at the county – $616 million from ARPA – county officials are planning on spending $75 million for a new public health campus, $37 million for sheriff salaries and benefits, $40 million for a new mental health campus in Irvine, $25 million for projects to be decided later by county supervisors and $20 million for OC’s first veterans cemetery.
The county and many cities did not ask the public for input before deciding how to spend the dollars meant to provide relief to local residents, business and governments during the pandemic.
It’s a different story in Santa Ana.
As part of their Revive Santa Ana program, the city hosted five separate hearings to get input on spending $160 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Public input meetings were provided in the city’s three biggest languages – English, Spanish and Vietnamese – and the city also issued a community survey asking residents and business owners how the funds could best be spent.
Ultimately, the city decided how to spend the first $80 million of the plan back in July, directing over $26 million to direct assistance programs including housing assistance, food distribution, and childcare, along with an additional $21 million on updates to the city’s infrastructure and a new library branch.
The rest of the money was spent in smaller disbursements, with $16 million going to new health and safety programs, $10 million going to the city to help it recover from costs associated with the pandemic and $5.4 million going to a variety of issues aimed at aiding recovery from the pandemic.
To review Santa Ana’s entire spending plan, click here.
Irvine executed a similar plan, releasing an itemized list of everything they planned to spend from $56 million in relief funds. The projects include upgrading park equipment, direct assistance to families, a new city transportation plan and additional broadband and housing infrastructure.
Originally, the city was set to spend over $2 million on city hall perks including updates to their air conditioning system, a new fitness center for staff, updated city hall seating and new energy generators, but those were removed by the city council in their final review of the plan.
Staff still received a one time bonus of $2.2 million as a thank-you for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To review the full proposed plan from the council’s Oct. 26 meeting, click here.
As cities use much of the bailout funds to cover their operating expenses, taxpayer watchdogs say it’s important officials don’t become reliant on one-time dollars to live outside their means for ongoing costs.
“For the most part, what we’re finding is cities are using it to backfill their revenue,” said Carolyn Cavecche, a former mayor of Orange who is now president of the Orange County Taxpayers Association.
“This [Covid relief money] is a band-aid. And the band-aid will be ripped off. And what cities will be prepared to go forward without it?”
Shelley questioned who will be auditing local governments’ relief spending to make sure it was spent as required by law.
A good candidate for auditing oversight, she said, is the State Auditor’s Office, which she credited as being a strong fiscal watchdog under outgoing State Auditor Elaine Howle.
However, when Voice of OC asked that office if they plan to audit local spending of the COVID relief dollars, a spokeswoman said they have not done such audits and didn’t indicate there any plans to do so.
Asked who will be auditing the spending, county CEO Frank Kim’s office said audits would be conducted by the county itself, under county Auditor-Controller Frank Davies.
It’s important for the public to continue to watch how the money is being spent, said Shelley.
“We should all be aware of how much has been appropriated here, and where it’s going,” she said.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.