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Many Issues Where Once There Was 1 : * Survey Shows Traffic No Longer Sole Source of <i> Angst</i>

There’s nothing like new problems to make the old ones seem less daunting. Take, for example, traffic congestion. Year after year, traffic has shown up in the Orange County Annual Survey as a near obsession with county residents, prompting the survey directors to call this a “one-problem county.”

Not so in this, the 10th year of the survey. While traffic is viewed as an even bigger pest, and ranks first among the concerns of residents, now it appears there is plenty of anxiety to spread around. Particularly in the central county, worries over crime, immigration and the quality of the public school system have jumped markedly since last year.

The message is unmistakable: Orange County is no longer the refuge from Los Angeles that it used to be. Far less clear is what policy makers should do to preserve the best of what the county has to offer, while taking into account the inevitable changes that come with growth and cosmopolitanism. Nor is the challenge made easier by the recession and its devastating impact on government budgets.

But financial woes cannot be an excuse to do nothing. The problems outlined by residents in the survey will become intractable unless seriously addressed now by the Board of Supervisors, city councils, the business community and citizen groups. The survey’s results offer an opportunity for the county to pull together to work on problems such as housing, public education and that familiar bugaboo, traffic congestion.

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The survey is done each year in an attempt to identify issues and attitudes among Orange County residents and, by doing so, help to guide public policy. It is supported by nearly 40 public agencies and private foundations and corporations, including The Times Orange County.

Because this is its 10th year, survey co-directors Mark Baldassare and Cheryl Katz cast back to the first survey to see how things have changed in Orange County during a decade of unprecedented growth. Since 1981, for example, the county has added a whopping 475,000 residents. Today’s 2.4 million population has put unprecedented demands on housing, infrastructure and government services, including public schools.

Indeed, the most sobering finding of this year’s survey was the dramatic rise in residents’ concerns about the school system.

So far, Orange County has managed to avoid the fate of counties such as Los Angeles, where public schools have nearly been ceded to only those who can’t afford private schools. But preserving the strength of the public school system in Orange County will require action by the entire community. The same serious problem-solving also must be used to confront other problems now rising in the awareness of county residents, including crime and immigration.

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Baldassare and Katz said that the unprecedented change “from a single issue to multiple concerns tugging at public sentiment” represents the start of a new era in Orange County history. Not coincidentally, the survey found that it takes an income of $80,000 or more to elicit the level of contentment reported by the average Orange County resident 10 years ago. It’s not that the quality of life in Orange County is bad--just not as good as it used to be.

This is no longer a “one-problem” county, but one in which a multiplicity of concerns must be addressed at once. Whether the changes now under way will lead to a stronger Orange County, or one in which quality of life merely slowly erodes, will depend on what is done today.


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