Since the Board Can't Be Up in Arms, Taxpayers Will Be

If the Orange County financial crisis had occurred, say, 600 years ago, the solution would have been simple. Needing quick cash in 1395, the Sheriff of Orange (Brad the Younger?) would have mobilized his forces, augmented them with some sturdy horsemen from the ever-ready Lincoln Club, and set out to pillage a nearby county.

Riverside would have made an inviting target.

The Orange Countians would have overrun the unsuspecting enemy force, commandeering its supplies, annexing its land and raiding its treasury. Returning home with the booty, the sheriff and his men would be hailed as heroes. Crisis averted.

The Board of Supervisors is probably wishing about now that Gates would conquer someone. Anyone. If it were still legal to take up arms against a neighbor, you know the board's vote would be 5 to 0.

Alas and alack (as they used to say in 1395), Orange County can't attack anyone. Modern society has advanced too much for that, which may be a sign of progress until you consider that it has the unfortunate side effect of greatly reducing one's options.

The result is the worst of all possible worlds for the supervisors, a situation that in and of itself will cause many to giggle with delight.

The more I think about all this, the more I think Robert L. Citron must have dreamed all this up as the perfect way to bring down the supervisors. This is the most delicious trap since Kathleen Turner nailed William Hurt in "Body Heat."

Consider what a box (coffin?) the supervisors are in:

They are elected officials at a time when the national mood is decidedly anti-tax. If that weren't enough, they preside over a county that's notoriously and loudly anti-tax and which always feels overtaxed.

Those facts of life collide with the reality that Orange County must convince creditors and financial markets that it can pay its bills and regain its footing. To do that, it must generate cash to offset its losses.

Like we knew they would, the board has come around to the idea of a sales tax. Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy has been gently leading them that way in recent days, like a parent telling its sick toddler that the medicine on the spoon is just a great big airplane coming in for a landing so open wide and--

The supervisors closed their eyes and swallowed hard Tuesday, voting 5 to 0 to put it on the ballot this June. This promises to be the worst medicine the board ever tasted.

The problem for the supes is that taxpayers will never forgive them for the tax. Not so much for the half-cent but for the inattention that led to the current crisis. Every time they buy something, they'll remember the supervisors.

And that's just the people who will vote for the tax. Imagine what the people who won't vote for it will be thinking.

We got some idea Tuesday when one resident stopped just short of saying he'd like to take a contract out on the board.

Believe it or not, it could get even worse for the supervisors. If you think not, imagine them being forced to campaign for the tax increase. Given the need for the extra revenue, won't the supervisors take an active role in pushing for the tax? Will they lobby for it? Will they appear at community meetings and explain why it must be passed?

If they do, they're more courageous than I think. And yet, if they want to stake even a faint claim to leadership, that's what they'll have to do. They can't punt this one to the taxpayers.

Say what you will about Brad Gates, but when the sheriff wanted a new jail a few years ago and needed a sales-tax increase to finance it, he hit the campaign trail. He wasn't afraid to make his case, although we should add the cautionary note that even though this is considered a law-and-order county, the jail vote went down in a ball of flames.

Gates didn't get his jail, but he lived to tell about it.

The situation is much different with the supervisors. At the moment, living to tell about it sounds like wishful thinking for them.

They more closely resemble those wolves that get caught in steel traps, with only one way to survive.

Stay tuned, but not if you're politically squeamish. You're about to watch the supervisors begin the laborious and painful process of gnawing their legs off.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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