After weeks of studying Orange County government operations, a blue-ribbon task force has identified more than $37 million worth of services that it believes might be better managed by private businesses.
The task force, which has brought together local business leaders and top county officials, is still working to prepare a short list of recommendations for the County Board of Supervisors. But task force members have already picked out 43 government operations--from tree-trimming to alcohol outpatient clinics to the county Harbor Patrol--that they feel are worthy of further study.
Of those, 15 operations are considered "priority one" options, indicating the county might save significant sums of money, with little opposition, by turning those functions over to the private sector. Those include school crossing guard services, bridge inspections and various park operations.
In addition, the task force has also compiled dozens of ideas that the county might consider for raising money. They include charging county workers for parking, increasing fees for immunization shots for people planning to travel abroad and even sponsoring paid seminars on "How to Do Business With the County."
All told, the task force recommendations--which are still in draft form and will be revised before the top dozen or so suggestions are sent to the Board of Supervisors--lay out a tentative blueprint for what proponents envision as a pared-down and more efficient county government. But some recommendations threaten to stir controversy as well, as employee unions and others are expected to oppose them fiercely.
"As we get leaner and leaner, the buzzword is going to be privatization, " said Supervisor Don R. Roth. "But you've got one obstacle after another. There's more obstacles than meet the eye."
In some cases, state or local legislation may be needed before the county can contract out a service. Roth has suggested that the county adopt its own charter, which he and other officials believe might make it easier for the government to contract out some of its operations.
While many of the task force suggestions appear likely to win easy support, others, including the Harbor Patrol idea, already have opponents lined up and ready to take issue.
"I think it's really shortsighted," Robert J. McLeod, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. "To think that there is some ability to privatize a service as diverse and difficult as the Harbor Patrol is just beyond my comprehension. I would have to conclude that the members of this task force don't have the slightest idea what these officers do."
John H. Sawyer, president of the Orange County Employees Assn., also expressed concern about the prospect of contracting out government services.
"This can be very dangerous," he said. "We think there are a lot of problems with this. We know they want to save money, but contractors can cut corners, and the public agency gets left holding the bag."
Members of the task force acknowledge that there are likely to be disagreements about specific suggestions, but they say that the discussions so far have been fruitful and that county officials have embraced many of the proposed changes.
"I've been very pleased by the openness and receptiveness of the county department heads," said Todd Nicholson, executive director of the Industrial League of Orange County. "They've shown a willingness to consider all of these ideas."
County department heads, in fact, helped generate a list of 144 suggestions for possible private contracting. That list is what the task force is working from. Members of the panel narrow the areas at each of their meetings, hoping to eventually bring 10 or 12 suggestions to the county supervisors for their consideration.
The details of those meetings are not clear, however, because the task force has elected to bar members of the press and public from its sessions.
County budget director Ronald S. Rubino, a member of the task force, said the group has chosen to meet in private because county officials want the sessions to be as candid as possible. The group's final reports will be made public, he added.
Still, several of the panel members discussed its deliberations in general terms this week, and The Times obtained the list of ideas that members have tentatively endorsed for further study.
Among the suggestions for privatization:
* Serving food in the county's five jails, Juvenile Hall and the Orangewood Children's Home--a major undertaking that county officials have yet to put a price tag on.
* Providing crossing guards near schools. Current price: about $445,000 a year.
* Conducting bridge inspections. Current price: $22,055 a year.
* Landscaping and maintaining county parks, trimming trees, controlling rodents and other pests and collecting trash from campsites. Current price: About $500,000 a year.
* Custodial and landscaping services in the Santa Ana Civic Center. Current price: $11.8 million a year.
* Operating alcohol outpatient clinics. Current price: $2.1 million a year.
Even if private companies take over those services, the county will still have to pay for them, but advocates say the private sector might be able to do them cheaper.
Robert Poole, an expert on private contracting of government services, said public agencies see their costs drop between 10% and 40% when they contract a service out to a private company.
"Sometimes there are public agencies that are just crackerjack operations," said Poole, president of the Santa Monica-based Reason Foundation, which advocates privatization. "But . . . they don't tend to have the same kinds of pressure that the private sector people face, and so they are less efficient."
The prospect of savings is enough to catch the eye of Orange County officials in these days of dire budget shortfalls. The county has been predicting a record $65-million shortfall and this week got an additional jolt when state budget negotiations cut an additional $30 million from money the government was counting on.
Some of that money may be restored, but the county will in any case be left facing a huge deficit in its coming budget.
As the task force narrows its list, many members of the panel say they would prefer to concentrate on items that would save considerable money while generating as little controversy as possible.
"I'd rather hit a couple singles before we try to hit a homer," said Paul Hegness, an attorney and task force member.
Task force member Ron Del Principe, who is also area vice president for Pacific Bell, agreed. "I don't want to torpedo the ship before we leave the harbor," he said. "We're going to take this a step at a time."
Targets for Privatization
A privatization task force studying county government has developed a list of 43 services that could be performed more efficiently by private industry. The group may also suggest some new revenue sources. Here are the 15 least controversial services: Service: Custodial and landscaping services (Civic Center) Current Cost: $11,800,609 Service: Featherly Regional Park operations Current Cost: $525,000 Service: School crossing guards Current Cost: $445,000 Service: Full landscape maintenance at regional parks Current Cost: $336,000 Service: Fabricate wood for Harbors, Beaches and Parks Current Cost: $87,887 Service: Regional park chemical spraying and rodent control Current Cost: $84,000 Service: Regional park tree trimming Current Cost: $60,000 Service: Trash collection/disposal and camping and day-use parks Current Cost: $56,000 Service: Vegetation mowing of undeveloped parcels Current Cost: $52,820 Service: Vegetation discing of undeveloped parks Current Cost: $27,084 Service: Bridge inspection Current Cost: $22,055 Service: Maintenance of Heritage Hill Historical Park Current Cost: $28,000 Service: Sidewalk grinding Current Cost: $16,348 Service: Installation of horizontal gas collection lines Current Cost: not stated Service: Landfill heavy equipment rental and maintenance Current Cost: not stated Source: Public/Private Task Force report.