Nyahh Naaah Nuh, Nah, Nah
OK, they didn’t really thumb their noses at the Bishop Vann. But, North Tustin residents did get a bit of good news at the January 13th Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting. If you ever drive on Newport Avenue north of 17th Street, you have seen the large, empty lot, owned by the Diocese of Orange, that was earmarked for a Catholic-oriented senior living facility. In past years, my family bought live Christmas trees off this lot (now, do you remember?). We previously wrote of a victory by the Foothill Communities Association to overturn a spot-zoning attempt by the county board of supervisors. That court victory quickly turned to defeat when an appeals court reversed the decision.
Saying the face of the county had changed, it was necessary to address the concerns of senior citizens. Three justices on the 4th Appellate Court concurred and the hard work of the FCA legal team was undone. Interestingly, the county did not pursue the issue. It was the diocese’ management partner, Kisco, that sought the appeal. Of course, millions of dollars in expected income were at stake.
All of the expense and work were futile, it seems, as the OC BoS headed by soon-to-be Chairman Todd Spitzer derailed the proposed project by moving to rescind the Senior Residential Housing Zoning designation. Supported by Supervisor Shawn Nelson, the board voted 4-0 in favor of the change. The recommendation must still go before the planning commission but Supervisors made it clear they expect the recommendation to come back in favor of FCA.
I emailed Richard Nelson, spokesperson for the Foothill Communities Association, asking what the chances were the action would stand court scrutiny. He inidcated he felt it would. In any case, kudos to the North Tustin folks who saw this fight to this point. I remember seeing them protesting in front of the property as well as sending out information. Heck, before this, I didn’t even know there was an FCA.
For his part, Todd Spitzer came through for the community under his governance. We like to rag on Todd (mostly because he presents such a tempting target) but he has proven loyal, both this term and his previous years on the board, to the community and the county. Now, if he would just take a lesson from his cohort Shawn Nelson on how to be lo-pro, he’d stay off the radar of the OCW and OTT. Maybe just an occasional cigar fest at the house, Todd. Todd, by the way, was last mentioned in the OCW “Best of 2014” as part of the Best Political Battle with his nemesis Susan “Dragon Lady” Kang-Schoreder over the ongoing fight for the district attorneys office when T-Rack leaves.
The foothills folks are also in the middle of a nasty water fight with their current provider. Unhappy with the high cost of water provided by Golden State Water, activist residents embarked on a campaign to change water companies.
Two years ago, FCA made a presentation to the community of a plan to change water providers from GSW, a private utility, to a public utility (looks like Irvine Ranch Water District is the favored candidate). Citing costs that have skyrocketed since 2003, it looks like GSW is proposing even higher rates in the not too distant future.
The biggest obstacle is, of course, money. Proponents are suggesting bonds to purchase GSW assets that serve the area. From the looks of things, residents aren’t too keen on something that could actually cost them in the end.
One thing that may help is the bad publicity GSW has garnered from one of their other customer communities. Folks in Gardena aren’t too happy with GSW as black, foul smelling water has been issuing from their taps and toilets. The results can be seen on this video. If that doesn’t compel them to find a solution, I don’t know what will.
So, what else are those nefarious rebels in the foothills up to? You can find out by checking out their website, maintained by Rick Nelson, at www.fcahome.org.
Nick Plays Hardball
We recently reported on the progress, or lack thereof, of the Orange County negotiations with employees represented by the Orange County Employee Association. After two year, the county finally gave the ultimatum of the “Last, Best and Final” offer to OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino. That generated an alleged response that was less than cordial.
Shortly thereafter, OCEA took to the airwaves with a new commercial and a website that would hopefully enlighten the public on the issues at hand.
Berardino has also issued a number of essays to OCEA members regarding the negotiations and what will happen next. Today, he sent out this missive, explaining that Mediation Day is here:
Dear OCEA member,
As you know, OCEA members recently rejected the County’s last, best and final offer, standing together against the Board of Supervisor’s attempts to threaten and intimidate us into taking a bad deal. The next step in the negotiations process is to go to mediation, where an independent third-party professional will work with the County and OCEA in an attempt to help us reach an agreement. We are scheduled to be in mediation Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Meanwhile, we continue to stand together against the corruption and culture of intimidation that has been poisoning our County for far too long. We truly believe that nobody—not taxpayers or County workers—will be treated fairly here until all the issues laid out by the Orange County Grand Jury last year are resolved. It is wrong that the Board of Supervisors attempted to cut the Grand Jury’s pay in retaliation for standing up for transparency and accountability, and it’s wrong that they’re doing the same to us. We stand with the Grand Jury and with our community to clean up this County.
Nick goes on to promote the website and the association’s Facebook page.
In addition, we were treated to former OC Register Reporter and current OCEA Spokeswoman, Jennifer Muir (always a pleasure) facing Rick Rief on SoCal Insider. The video shows Muir not pulling any punches while Rief tries to “guide” the conversation. In the end, Muir gets her point across and an apology from Rief for trying to mute the discussion.
The video is only about 5 minutes but very interesting:
Pouring Money Into the Hole
In news from the Republic of Orange County, we found the not so surprising tidbit that OCTA has voted to refinance the 91 Express Lanes Bonds. The 91 toll roads, supposedly an award-winning design, has been a money losing operation from the beginning. Originally a private enterprise wherein mostly foreign investors bilked the state out of real estate on the center divider of the 91 freeway to build a business, that business turned out -as predicted by many- to be a deep hole to sink taxpayer money into. And, sink it they did.
When California Private Transportation Company developed the toll road complex, they quietly transferred ownership back to the State of California who then leased it back to CPTC (confused yet?). CPTC then continued to operate the toll road on a for-profit basis, presumably for the next 35 years.
In 2003, when CPTC couldn’t make a dime off the venture, they wisely conned the Orange County Transportation Authority to take it off their hands for a cool $207.5 million in cash and tokens (OK, I’m kidding about the tokens – everyone knows the toll road uses FastTrak).
The toll roads use “congestion pricing” to set toll prices for any given hour – except it’s not, really. True congestion pricing would require real-time input on congestion to determine pricing. That wouldn’t work for the toll road, which the developers (and OCTA) knew would display a grossly underused road at any hour of the day. Instead, they use a predictive model to determine the most heavily congested hours and adjust every so often for changes. That, of course, is not exactly transparency in government. But, then, one only has to look at the Toll Road website for the inside information. Oh, wait, that paints a rosy picture that just isn’t true.
And staff at OCTA know it.
In May of this year, a staff report titled, “91 Express Lanes Debt Restructuring” was sent to the OCTA Board, of which our own Al Murray and Todd Spitzer belong. That report, which you can read here, outlines deep trouble with the debt structure of the toll roads and the immediate need to refinance both the 2003 and current bonds for the Toll Roads. Recommendation by staff, of course, is to refinance.
Now, what I know about bonds and debt restructuring could be put on a pinhead. But, I do know how to read bond ratings (thanks, brother John) and can tell you that, when your bonds go from an original Aaa/AAA/AAA rating to A1/A/A-, you are in deep doody. This is akin to your going from an 800 credit score to a 400 credit score only, while your interest rate goes up to buy that house, the interest rate goes down on the bonds and they become difficult to sell-unless you offer artificially attractive interest. Oh, but there are laws against that sort of thing, aren’t there? Well, according to Spitzer, who sits on the OCTA Finance Committee, the rates went from 2.75% to 2.65% practically overnight. Spitzer, who in his latest newsletter to constituents is trying to paint a portrait of a rose from a picture of a sow, is clearly losing the battle on the Toll Road.
Al Murray, by the way, is of the same mind as his predecessor Jerry “Boss Tweed” Amante was, that we should turn the carpool lanes on the San Diego Freeway (there, I said it) into toll roads as well. All this while not one toll road in the county can meet its ridership or its financial goals. Another Tustin Councilmember, Chuck Puckett, is a member of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency and, although we haven’t checked, we are betting he is in favor (like Amante was) of the Foothill Extension that would wreak havoc on the Trestles area.
Peas in a pod.
What we can’t figure out is why the Republicans in this county continue to chase after the toll roads, a proven money loser for government and a bane to the public. If you have ever ridden any of the county’s toll roads, you know that -at any time of the day- they are grossly underused. None of the toll roads have been able to reach their lofty projections. Their answer to low ridership? Raise tolls, making the roads even more expensive and out of reach for the everyday commuter. The 91 Toll Roads show the best ridership of any in Orange County. But, they are still vastly underused. An old non-compete agreement threatened a widening project at one time. When the issue was settled, mostly due to the sale to OCTA, ridership fell when the widening was completed. Will connecting the 91 and the 241 Toll Roads help matters? Possibly. But, are we, as taxpayers, willing to fund another possible boondoggle to find out?
We, as taxpayers, are stuck with the existing toll road boondoggle foisted upon us by a so-called conservative leadership shouting the privatization mantra. But, time and time again, we’ve seen that privatization of government enterprises creates substandard product amidst the cronyism and backroom deals. Toll roads are not the answer and it is time to tell our elected officials to get off the same broken record. We may be stuck with what we have. It doesn’t mean we should continue to propagate the species.
Leave Me Alone, I’m In Denial – Again
I 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.