State leaders should help bail Orange County out of its financial crunch but should seek to transfer control of the county's financial affairs from the County Board of Supervisors to a panel of experts, according to a new Times Poll of Californians.
The poll, conducted this week, undercuts the widespread belief that residents outside Orange County are ambivalent, or even hostile, to state aid for the bankrupt county, whose $1.7-billion investment loss has fueled a financial crisis that threatens services provided by schools, cities and the county.
In fact, 54% of those surveyed believe it is in the state's long-term interest to take an active role in assisting Orange County with guaranteed loans. About half the respondents are concerned the county's financial problems threaten the economic well-being of the entire state.
"I think it's up to the state to help out someone in distress," said Kenneth Hall, 75, a retired postal worker from San Bernardino. "Whether the bankruptcy happened through neglect or whatever, these things happen. If we can bail out Mexico, I think there should be some compassion and the state should lend a helping hand."
The Times Poll, supervised by John Brennan, surveyed 1,390 adults statewide March 4-9. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
More of those surveyed had an unfavorable view of Orange County than a favorable view. But even among those who dislike the area, more than half believe the state should provide some financial help.
"Orange County is an asset and should be helped out in its bankruptcy," said Pompee Chakraborty, 24, of Sunnyvale. But the San Jose State University student says the financial disaster has taken some of the luster off the county's reputation.
"I once had a favorable impression of Orange County, but now, of course, it's unfavorable," she said.
Not everyone shares the view that the state should provide loans.
"Orange County (legislators have) frequently, over the past few years, voted down emergency aid to other counties," said Richard Wood, 35, an unemployed technical marketing consultant from San Francisco. "If the residents there are going to elect people like that, then I think Orange County should have to go it alone."
Although there was broad endorsement of the idea of state aid, the strongest support in the poll came for a proposal by Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego) to strip the Board of Supervisors of its fiscal responsibilities and install a financial oversight authority. Two-thirds of respondents statewide favored that idea.
"How could those politicians let things get so far out of control and allow one person to have so much control over so many people's lives?" asked Robert DeClusin, 52, a construction worker in Redding, in an apparent reference to former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron's management of the county's investment portfolio. "If the people they've got in there in Orange County are too incompetent to handle things, then someone else should. I've only got a 7th-grade education, but I know that if (I) spend $20 and take in $10, I've got a problem."
As recently as Wednesday, Orange County leaders pleaded with members of the state Assembly to provide loan guarantees, mostly to help county schools that invested heavily in the collapsed investment pool.
But Democratic legislators have been largely unsympathetic to Orange County's plight, repeatedly asking local officials why they are willing to seek handouts but refuse to raise taxes.
But regardless of party affiliation, political ideology, gender, education, age or income, respondents in the Times Poll favor the idea of guaranteed loans that the state would have to repay only if Orange County could not. Among ethnic groups, only African Americans do not favor a bailout.
Those who identify themselves as liberal or Democratic were particularly likely to believe the state should get involved, although conservatives and Republicans favored Sacramento's help by a wide margin as well. Highly educated people and those with larger incomes favor state help by bigger margins.
The poll's findings were welcomed by Orange County officials, who have warned state lawmakers that the impact of the bankruptcy will be felt up and down the state. William J. Popejoy, the county's chief executive officer, found the results unexpected.
"I'm very pleased and heartened to hear of those results, but I'm very surprised also," he said. "That was not the response we received in Sacramento, and though they were very polite and listened to us, I didn't come away with any feeling that there was a groundswell of support for Orange County's request.
"Well," Popejoy said, "I hope the people in Sacramento are watching this."
County Supervisor William G. Steiner shared Popejoy's satisfaction. "People understand that the wider economic interest of the state is tied to the county of Orange," he said. "They also recognize that it is in their self-interest to provide some assistance to Orange County, and that is a very positive sign."
Supervisor Marian Bergeson agreed that the poll shows the county has finally been able to get the word out that what harms Orange County hurts the rest of California. But, she added, "We still have a massive job of trying to convince the public statewide that we have the ability to turn this thing around and make this county solvent."
Although the state Capitol may have been cool to Orange County, Bergeson said, "I think we have been governed too much by the partisan rhetoric out of Sacramento. That is not the real world."
Overall, Orange County's reputation receives low marks from the rest of the state.
In Los Angeles County, 34% of those surveyed give the area an unfavorable rating and 27% see the county in a positive light. In the Bay Area, 39% think negatively of Orange County and 24% have a favorable impression. The rest had no opinion.
Even Republicans statewide are not enamored with an area that long has been considered America's conservative heartland. While 33% of those who identify themselves as Republicans think favorably of Orange County, 34% have a negative impression, according to the poll.
Bay Area residents were notably nonplussed by the prospect of Orange County's financial fall threatening the rest of the state.
"It's a blip on the chart," said Wood, the unemployed San Francisco consultant, who believes he lives in the most liberal neighborhood of the most liberal city in America. "Sure, it has caused a relatively large number of people in Orange County government to lose their jobs. But for the 30 million other people in the state, it makes no difference."
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How the Poll Was Conducted
Times Poll interviewed 1,390 adults statewide by telephone March 4-9. The sample includes 1,011 registered voters. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region of the state. The margin of sampling error for the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for the sample of registered voters it is plus or minus 4 points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors, such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
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Orange County's Woes
A Times poll shows that most Californians say the state has a long-term interest in aiding the county's financial recovery; most also support loan guarantees as a form of assistance. They would also give a panel of experts control over county financial decisions instead of the county supervisors:
As you may know, last December Orange County declared bankruptcy because its treasurer lost $1.7 billion speculating on securities. The county faces a financial crisis and various ideas are being considered to assist it, including action by the state government. Do you think Orange County's financial problems threaten the economic well-being of the entire state, or not? Yes, serious threat: 24% Yes, not serious threat: 19% Yes, not sure how serious: 6% No doesn't threaten: 42% Don't know: 9% *
Do you think it is in the long-term interest of the state to assist Orange County in recovering from its financial crisis, or would it be better for the state to stay out of thesituation? Assist: 54% Stay out: 33% Depends: 5% Don't know: 8% *
Would you favor or oppose providing state loan guarantees to help Orange County? Favor: 57% Oppose: 35% Don't know: 8% *
In order to help Orange County recover from its financial crisis, a state lawmaker has proposed replacing the county's elected Board of Supervisors with an expert panel that could take control of the county's finances. Would you favor or oppose this proposal to help Orange County? Favor: 66% Oppose: 23% Don't know: 11% Source: Los Angeles Times Poll, March 4-9, 1995