Plan Seen as Pork Barrel or Hog Heaven : Development: Proponents expect firms to stand in line for chance to pay for a civic center in South County. But skeptical officials see it as an expensive risk.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stroke of bureaucratic genius or multimillion-dollar pork barrel?

Those are roughly the opposing views of an ambitious county proposal to beef up government services in southern Orange County by creating a huge civic center to rival the one in Santa Ana.

If built, the center would relieve overcrowding in South County's overburdened courtrooms and deliver an array of government services to the fastest-growing area of Orange County.

Supervisors Thomas F. Riley and Gaddi H. Vasquez, who represent South County, liken the 921,000-square-foot center to a mall. Associate County Administrative Officer Ronald S. Rubino says the county offices will serve as its "Nordstrom." They predict that developers will line up for the chance to build the center at virtually no cost to the government.

Skeptics such as North County Supervisors Don R. Roth and Harriett M. Wieder are hopeful but unconvinced, and they worry that the county could end up sinking millions of dollars into the development of a new civic center, only to have the project run aground.

Their concerns center on two unsettling and unanswered questions: Where will the facility be built, and who will pay for it?

The answers: No one knows--at least not yet.

With those issues looming in the background, the supporters and the skeptics are settling in for what may prove to be the most important test of the South County center's political viability: a vote as early as next month on whether to appropriate $1 million to prepare schematic drawings for the complex.

So far, little in the public debate has suggested much division over the plan. Supervisors debated the idea heatedly last month, but once they were finished, all five members voted to approve the project in concept and spend $392,000 from the county court construction fund to proceed.

The next round may not be so easy.

If the supervisors take the matter up as part of their budget hearings, the project will face some tough scrutiny, as the county is confronted with a projected $70-million shortfall next year. Even though the civic center project would be funded out of a different account than most other county functions, plunging ahead at the same time that other programs are slashed could create political backlash for some supervisors.

Already, there are signs that the board unity displayed in last month's vote may be fraying at the seams.

"I've supported it so far because the money we've spent had to go for courthouse construction," Roth said. "But I'm concerned about this project. My vote for the $392,000 is no signal, no green light that they can go ahead and count on me to spend more money than that."

Not surprisingly, it is the board's three North County supervisors who expressed the most reservations during the May debate. Their constituents would see the least direct benefit from construction of the facility.

While supporting the concept of a new civic center, some supervisors also are worried that the county could end up committing so much money that it would be hard later to drop the idea. That problem has surfaced before: The county has spent more than four years and $7 million pursuing Gypsum Canyon, near Anaheim, as a site for a new jail, yet the county is barely closer today to acquiring that land than it was in 1987.

"We can't afford to spend millions to design a courthouse building on land that not only do we not own, but we have not even identified," said Robert L. Richardson, a Santa Ana councilman and an aide to Supervisor Roger R. Stanton. "There's a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered."

Supporters of the civic center project, however, say they are prepared to make their case. Backed up by a recent County Administrative Office study of the proposal, they argue that the need for such a facility is growing: The South County is expected to add 10,000 residents a year for the next 20 years.

To keep pace, the county government has pumped millions of dollars into leasing space for courtrooms--the tab now runs to $1.6 million per year, and those leases will continue until some new facility is built.

Meanwhile, South County residents who have other government business--whether it's getting a marriage license or meeting with a sheriff's deputy or complaining to the Board of Supervisors--usually have to travel to Santa Ana to do it. That adds to traffic congestion and air pollution, both of which the county is struggling to curtail.

But just needing a facility is not enough to get one built. And proponents of the South County civic center acknowledge that the county government is in no financial condition to go it alone on a $186-million construction project.

Instead, they support a novel development approach, which they say could bring the project in at virtually no cost to the county.

"What I'm saying is, 'Let's make a deal,' " said Pamela Iles, presiding judge of the South County Municipal Court and a leading proponent of the civic center. "We're going to help some developer make some money at the same time that we get some desperately needed courtroom space."

The idea, Iles and other supporters say, is that a developer would pay to build the complex, and in return, would get the benefit of skyrocketing land values on the project's periphery. So for a couple hundred million dollars, an ambitious development company might end up with its own booming office park.

"There's been a great deal of interest," Iles said.

Rubino agrees. "I've had to fight them off," he told board members during their May debate.

But whether it will produce a deal still remains to be seen. South County's two leading developers appear cool to the idea of shelling out their own money for a government complex, even if the payoff is big returns down the road.

"Our primary interest is in getting fair market value for our land," said Wendy Wetzel, a Mission Viejo Co. spokeswoman.

Would the company be interested in developing a South County civic center? "Probably not," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Santa Margarita Co. indicated that her firm would be happy to discuss the matter with county officials, but she added that little has transpired so far.

The next few weeks may prove crucial for the civic center proposal. If a developer can be persuaded to bite at the idea, supervisors may be ready to commit the money to pay for their part of it. The project, however, may be dealt a serious setback if the private sector remains cool to it.

"We need to find out what's out there," Stanton said. "And I'm very hopeful that there are some entrepreneurs ready to step up to the plate. We'll see."

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