Welcome to June, when often clammy marine layers descend upon sunny Orange County—and the Board of Supervisors rolls out another wildly inequitable, unjust, and opaque budget.

Budgets reflect moral choices among competing interests, and it’s clear where the supervisors’ interests lie: squarely on the side of the OC Sheriff’s Department, jails, and the District Attorney’s Office. These programs receive more than half of the approximately $1 billion discretionary budget (54%). Meanwhile, the Supervisors commit a measly 1% of those dollars to desperately needed affordable housing. In fact, the recommended discretionary budget allocates 230 times more in funding to the Sheriff’s Department than to housing.

The numbers don’t lie. But many of the Supervisors feigned innocence when the public demanded an explanation during the June 13 Budget Hearing.

Speakers from Housing is a Human Right Orange County (HHROC), People’s Budget OC and coalition partners, pointed to the lopsided discretionary budget as a travesty of justice. They noted that the dire shortage of subsidized affordable housing, coupled with skyrocketing rent, pushes thousands of community members out of their homes and onto the streets.

One of the speakers reminded the Supervisors that houselessness kills: in 2022, over 500 unhoused infants, children, people with disabilities, veterans, and others died while trying to survive living on the streets throughout Orange County. In May 2023, 43 additional unhoused people died as reported by the OC Coroner.

A Laguna Woods resident spoke about the dangerously overcrowded conditions that low income households are forced to endure given the high cost of market rate rent. She recounted a conversation with a mother who, along with her three children, lives in a home with 21 people. The mother and her children reside in the garage along with a car because it’s all they can afford.

After the public’s comments, some of the Supervisors praised the Orange County District Attorney and spoke glowingly about locking up community members. Some claimed that the discretionary budget is not under their control. Implying that the State Constitution and statutes are forcing the Supervisors to use discretionary funds, as mandated, for public protection, Supervisor Andrew Do declared, “If we didn’t do these mandated services, guess what? These criminals will get out of jail and get on the street!” Negative and untruthful rhetoric like this only contributes to law enforcement’s ongoing criminalization of the poor.

Moreover, the discretionary budget is called “discretionary” for a reason. It is a large and growing pot of money that the Supervisors control and for which they hold the power to set priorities. To claim that they have no choice but to throw more discretionary dollars at law enforcement and criminal legal programs is an abdication of their responsibility to meet the needs of their constituents, many of whom are barely surviving.

What do those discretionary dollars currently invested in law enforcement get us? In recent years about $110 million of discretionary funds went to big raises for the sheriff’s deputies. Moving forward, $48 million per year of county discretionary funds will be allocated to the deputies’ funds that could have been used for healthcare, affordable housing and other much needed programs for the public. Below are just a few examples of the Sheriff’s Department’s total pay and benefits in 2022:

J. T. Puckett – Assistant Sheriff was paid $598,317.31; A. P. Stephens – Assistant Sheriff was paid $594,791.15; J. A. Hallock – Undersheriff was paid $542,927.77; R. W. Caouette – Assistant Sheriff was paid $516,816.79; J. L. Park – Assistant Sheriff was paid $516,346.41… totaling over $2,769,197 in salary and benefits for just 5 Sheriff’s Department employees.

It is not hard to figure out why the supervisors shower the Sheriff’s Department with goodies at the expense of the rest of us. The sheriff deputies’ union, which is the largest county-level campaign spender, favors pro-law enforcement candidates. And it has shown time after time that it can make or break a candidate’s campaign for Supervisor. In turn, Supervisors stay in the good graces of the union by lavishing the deputies with the bounty of the expanding discretionary budget. It’s a pattern that works well for the deputies’ union while starving the county of much needed community-based services and affordable housing.

How do the Supervisors get away with it? For one, they shield these moral choices from public view. The budget is developed with limited public input opportunities. It is difficult for the layperson to interpret, and yet the roll out was done through a recorded video with no interactive opportunities. It was released approximately 2½ weeks before the budget hearing, leaving community members little time to analyze it. Also, the budget hearing is in the morning, when many people are at work, and there are no virtual options for participating in real time for public comments. To express an opinion to elected representatives about how they spend one’s tax dollars, one must submit a written comment or show up in person. It is as if June gloom obscures the budget process as well as the sky.

Orange County residents should expect more, and we certainly deserve better. Orange County is the 6th wealthiest county in the nation. It can surely afford to invest in the resources needed to ensure that all of its communities are vibrant and healthy places to live.

Speakers at the June 13 hearing demanded a transparent budget with greater public participation that reflects the moral values of our community – a moral budget that allows all of our neighbors to flourish. Their message was clear: as an HHROC volunteer told the Supervisors, “Do a better job, or please resign.”

Orange County residents can also make their voices heard by using the People’s Budget OC PBOC Tool-Kit for information to formulate their in-person or written comments at the June 27 meeting when the supervisors cast their final votes on this year’s budget. In addition, we invite you to complete the People’s Budget OC survey with your ideas as to how these discretionary dollars should be spent.

Will any of the Supervisors listen to the voices of the public? To find out, (agenda) please consider attending in person or watching online on June 27.

David Duran, OC resident since 1968 – Housing is a Human Right OC, Cofounder & volunteer – People’s Homeless Task Force OC (501c3), Board Member & volunteer – In 2018 Duran was invited to present to the United Nations Special Rapporteur (Philip Alston) on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

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