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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Reality’s Visit to Anaheim

Today is a day of reckoning in Anaheim. The City Council has scheduled a special session to consider what to do about the expanding fiscal crisis.

However the matter is resolved, one thing is clear: If the bubble hasn’t quite burst, it is not shining as brightly as before. Throughout this tenacious recession, this key city has held fast to its uniquely ambitious dreams.

No doubt other municipalities and county officials will be watching carefully to see what happens. How the budget crunch is handled in Anaheim will say something to others--who also dream for their own communities, if on a somewhat less grand scale-- about how visions of urban growth and redevelopment square with harsh economic realities.

In a county that has always thought big, the presence of Disneyland and Anaheim Stadium have symbolized the optimism and opportunity that found expression in sprawling freeways, brand-new housing tracts and bold commercial development. Suddenly, the crunch has hit hard at budget time for the Orange County city with the very boldest and most persistent vision of them all. This is the city that, even with its existing major attractions, has on its own drawing boards an indoor sports arena and an elaborate and futuristic transportation system--in addition to Disney’s proposed new theme park.

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Under the worst-case scenario, Anaheim now faces the immediate prospect of eliminating about 50 full-time workers. Programs such as the Pearson Park summer play series and the Corporate Challenge, an Olympics-style competition between businesses, could go. There could be more cuts--maybe 150 other jobs and the closing of senior centers, library branches and recreation facilities. It would be a nightmare for any city. The fall would be especially hard for one with big plans.

It now appears unlikely, given the spirit of compromise that seems to have emerged in recent days, that cuts so harsh would have to be implemented. But some jobs may go. Suddenly, in a city that has prided itself on being a place that provides an agreeable atmosphere for municipal employees, there is the unthinkable. Councilman William D. Ehrle put it bluntly and painfully the other day: “Just because somebody works for the government does not mean they are guaranteed a job for life.”

A compromise on a 4% utility tax would buy valuable time. There is a proposal being considered that would create a smaller and temporary utility tax that would be abolished in two years and would set a cap on what businesses would have to pay while it exempted households with incomes of less than $20,000.

Yet even in compromise there inevitably will be pain. This is something new for Anaheim, where there has been an abiding sense that when you wished upon a star, your dream came true--even in the real world. Now the city is looking at a new reality.

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So from Anaheim, we may learn a lesson of the early 1990s. Even in the city that’s home to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” tough choices must be made these days.


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