For a county that ranks among the nation’s largest and wealthiest, Orange County spends relatively little for law enforcement and human services, according to a survey of the nation’s 50 largest counties obtained Friday.
The annual survey is conducted by City and State newspaper, a biweekly publication based in Chicago. It examines budgets from the 1990 fiscal year, which ends today in Orange County but concludes at different times elsewhere.
The results will be published next week, but early copies of the publication’s findings released Friday indicate that Orange County, for the second consecutive year, boasts the nation’s fifth-largest population and fourth-largest county budget.
The total assessed value of property in the county tops $141 billion--or $61,634 per person, the survey found. That ranked Orange County sixth on the national list.
Despite those high overall rankings, the county drops far back in the pack when the comparison matches up spending, finishing just above the 50-county average in two major categories. Those findings, combined with one that demonstrates the low number of county workers to serve a population of 2.3 million, reinforce Orange County’s reputation as a fiscally conservative government with a relatively lean work force.
But they also suggest that county residents here may not be receiving the same level of service from their government that residents of other, more lavish counties receive.
“The money’s just not there to do everything we’d like, that’s true,” said Don R. Roth, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. “But there’s not going to be additional revenue unless the people of this county approve it, and they haven’t been willing to.”
County residents have a long-established reputation for refusing to back higher taxes. Voters have not approved a countywide bond referendum since 1957.
Local residents also enjoy an extraordinarily low property tax rate, ranking 41st out of 50 in terms of per capita tax revenue, the survey shows. With that revenue stream perilously shallow, the government has relied more heavily on service fees, and, partly as a result, Orange County residents pay higher fees than those of all but five other counties.
With annual human service expenditures of $179 per person, Orange County spends less than a third as much as Westchester County, N.Y., the nation’s leader in that category. According to the City and State survey, Westchester, a wealthy suburb of New York City, spends $610 per resident on human services such as health care, child welfare and employment assistance.
Other California counties also outspent Orange County: Fresno, the No. 2 county in the nation in human service spending, spent $573 per resident. Overall, Orange County ranked 21st in human service spending among the nation’s 50 largest counties.
When it comes to public safety expenditures, the survey suggests that Orange County is less far off the pace, but also well below the nation’s leaders. Henrico County, Va., which includes the state capital of Richmond, spends $239 per person for law enforcement, compared to Orange County’s $166.
Orange County ranked 20th in public safety spending per capita.
The numbers did not exactly come as a surprise to county officials, but they argued that the extraordinarily tight budgets of the past several years make it difficult for the county to spend any more than it is on those service areas.
“It’s bad news, but what are you going to do about it?” Roth asked. “It’s really a very, very difficult time, with things structured so tight.”
County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider declined to comment on the publication’s findings until after he has had a chance to review them in detail. Once the journal is released publicly, Schneider said, he intends to prepare a report for the board analyzing the national comparison and highlighting its significance for Orange County.
Schneider and other officials added, however, that Orange County’s $3.2-billion budget is largely shaped by forces beyond the county’s control. The state mandates many programs but does not fully fund them. The result is that increasingly large amounts of the county’s budget are used to pay for state-mandated services.
HOW ORANGE COUNTY COMPARES
HUMAN SERVICE SPENDING PER CAPITA
Rank County Amount 1. Westchester Co. (Yonkers), N.Y. $610 2. Fresno Co. (Fresno), Calif. $573 3. Monroe Co. (Rochester), N.Y. $459 . . . 20. Mecklenburg Co. (Charlotte), N.C. $191 21. ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. $179 22. Fulton Co. (Atlanta), Ga. $145
PUBLIC SAFETY SPENDING PER CAPITA
Rank County Amount 1. Henrico Co. (Richmond), Va. $239 2. Kern Co. (Bakersfield), Calif. $227 3. Montgomery Co. (Bethesda), Md. $225 . . . 19. Broward Co. (Fort Lauderdale), Fla. $167 20. ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. $166 21. Orange County (Orlando), Fla. $154
Source: City and State annual survey of the nation’s 50 largest counties.