Leave Me Alone, I’m In Denial – Again

See-no-evil-Hear-no-evil-Speak-no-evil-Star-Wars-Stormtroopers3I hope everyone enjoyed National Night Out at the District in Tustin. The annual event is put on by public safety around the country. Many cities in The Real OC, including Tustin, enjoyed a different view of the police and fire departments that serve our community. We are fortunate to have one of the finest of each to protect and serve.

Since there were no official meetings at the city level this week, we thought we would discuss an issue of pressing concern at the county level, where it is getting to be a regular thing that the Orange County Board of Supervisors have trouble admitting fault.

The Republic machine that runs most of Orange County just doesn’t seem to get it.  It seems every time local government gets into trouble, they don’t want to admit they had any part in it.  From the multitude of sexual harassment suits to the CalOptima debacle, the Orange County Supervisors always seem to find a way to blame others for their stupidity. When Carlos Bustamante was finally outed for his, shall we say, interesting management techniques, the public discovered what the rank-and-file employees of Orange County government knew all along. Yet, the OC Supervisors played the blame game and wound up using Tom Mauck as cannon fodder.

The Board of Supervisors continued to blame others for their poor oversight when the Grand Jury issued a couple of reports questioning their ethics and management of CalOptima, even when faced with the facts. John Moorlach, who refuses to lead by example, complained when the Grand Jury did its job. And, Todd Spitzer, in a holding pattern for Tony Rackauckus’ job (and, consequently, the Jury’s potential boss), was indignant that anyone, let alone the Grand Jury, could find fault with the BoS.

Through all of the bad publicity the Board of Supervisors has undergone lately, one important issue seems to have fallen out of the public’s eye. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal except it is worth $76.5 million dollars. That’s the amount of money the state will withhold from Orange County in property tax unless they can come to some sort of agreement.

And, as usual, the Board of Supervisors wants to lay the blame on someone else. The only trouble is, they couldn’t. So, they went into denial mode.

Back in May, the Voice of Orange County outlined the problems the county ran into when they refinanced bankruptcy debt. At the time, Orange County still received vehicle license fee money from the state to help with the remaining debt. In 2005, however, supervisors sought a reduction in costs and, in so doing, they inadvertently eliminated their access to the VLF. Actually, that’s not quite true. Many sources claim the county was aware of the faux pas but chose to ignore it, hoping no one else would notice.

That worked until this year when the folks working on Governor Brown’s budget caught up with the money and took it back. That resulted in a court case that everyone except the Supervisors knew the county would lose.

After ignoring the problem and keeping the money, then losing in court, the Board of Supervisors, now faced with the facts, is finally ready to make a deal with the state. Only trouble is, the state may not be willing to deal. And, of course, the supes have said that, if no agreement can be reached, others will pay for their mistake.

“Bridging the $76.5 million reduction would require a combination of labor reduction, revenue assumptions and non-labor cuts (e.g., services & supplies, equipment, capital projects, etc.),” reads a memo being distributed by county Chief Financial Officer Frank Kim.

County labor leaders have already sent out mass notices warning workers about potential cuts and where the pain might be felt.

During a meeting with the OCEA Bargaining Team, Kim offered three scenarios to OCEA members. One was that the County would lose the $76.5 million in VLF. The second scenario would have them lose the VLF but convert a special property tax set aside that Senator Lou Correa secured in 2009, into an ongoing replacement fund. The third scenario was just as dire: The county keeps the VLF but loses the property tax set aside.

Of course Kim, who also appears to be in denial, didn’t mention the likelihood of the state thumbing their nose at the county and keeping everything.

In a missive to employees, Berardino laid out the BoS strategy to lay the responsibility of getting out of the mess by taking it out on labor.

OCEA General Manager, Nick Berardino, is not taking it lying down. Berardino, who appears to be the only one who saw the potential for failure during this episode of the BoS drama, told the Supervisors that it would be unfair to continue to place the burden of resolution on the backs of the rank-and-file employees of the county.

The County predicts they could bridge the revenue loss with labor reductions, revenue assumptions and other non-labor cuts, however any specific and direct impacts are not currently known. We told the County again, as we’ve said many times before, working families did not create the bankruptcy and the fallout from the bankruptcy must not fall on the backs of working men and women!!

Berardino further points out that the blame lies squarely with the Board of Supervisors who, even though they were aware of the cuts, directed then Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom (who has since left for cooler skies to the north) to act as if nothing had happened. Talk about denial.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel. The $50 million dollar deal Senator Correa cut for Orange County in 2009 has now become a key bargaining chip in the game.

“What we thought should have been a step toward a bit of gravy is now just a struggle to get back to where we were,” Correa said. “Without that $50 million, we’d be nowhere. There would be nothing to negotiate.”

The deal Correa is attempting to work out, however, will only return the county to the original status quo and will still leave the county with budget cuts to deal with, some permanently. And, while the county said they are not looking at layoffs to bridge the funding gap, Nick Berardino is not likely to take them at their word.

Neither are Department Heads, some of whom are scrambling to meet with their employees to reassure them -or warn them- of budget issues. Most departments have cut to the bone as it is and, while employees have been able to maintain services, that is not likely to last should layoff occur.

So, while the Board of Supervisors fiddle, it is the public that could get burned if a deal can’t be reached. Senator Correa, who has come to the aid of the county many times before, describes the negotiations with the state as a “painful process”. We agree. Good luck, Lou.

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