Board Must Not Ease Impetus for Reform : Though Budget Has Passed, It's Far Too Soon to Relax

Mere days after Sacramento approved Orange County's plan to recover from bankruptcy, the Board of Supervisors passed its own budget for the next fiscal year. It makes for grim reading.

The total budget is more than $3.4 billion, most of which has to be spent according to federal and state regulations. When it comes to the county's discretionary spending, the outlay is $275 million, a cut of more than 40% from the figure before the county filed bankruptcy nearly 10 months ago.

Despite the fiscal pain experienced by many agencies that saw worthwhile programs cut or eliminated, the budget hearings were relatively calm. Clearly, much of the fury and wrath was expended soon after the bankruptcy, when budgets were cut severely.

The largely tranquil atmosphere and an understandable feeling of relief after the Legislature acted after months of fits and starts have caused a perception that there may be a letup in the impetus for reform now that the recovery process is underway. That would be a mistake.

Both the recovery plan and the budget have some shaky assumptions, a whistling past the graveyard quality.

If the economy falters and the county receives less tax money than expected, or if some other catastrophe occurs, Orange County is ill-prepared.

The county still must negotiate with Presiding Superior Court Judge James L. Smith over how much money the courts will receive. That task is complicated by a lack of agreement on the size of the gap in court funding, anywhere from $16.6 million to $40 million.

The inheritor of the shaky budget was Jan Mittermeier, picked by the supervisors last week as the county's new chief executive officer.

Understandably, the selection of the longtime county employee raised warning flags that the supervisors were not dedicated to changing the way the county does business.

That is no reflection on Mittermeier, who received good marks for running John Wayne Airport for the past several years. Supervisors said they also liked the way she helped shepherd the recovery plan through Sacramento.

But there is no doubt the board also liked the contrast Mittermeier posed with William J. Popejoy, who stepped in as chief executive for several months. A veteran of private business, Popejoy took the necessary tough steps in cutting the county's budget and number of personnel.

Popejoy also was willing to criticize publicly actions of the supervisors that he thought were wrong-headed, a refreshing change made possible by the fact he was wealthy, was not being paid and did not need the job.

Popejoy's comment that Mittermeier can do the job only if she is given sufficient authority was apt. It means the supervisors must not step in and micro-manage situations, as they have sometimes done, or treat Mittermeier like a hired hand carrying out their whims. They must also be willing to listen to bad news, a characteristic not often seen before the bankruptcy.

Months ago the supervisors said they would search nationwide for a new chief executive officer. Then they said they would search statewide. Then they looked inward. At a time of crisis for the county, they should have tried harder to bring in an outsider, someone who would bring a fresh perspective. The county has good employees, but it's normal to get used to doing business a certain way. The supervisors have to show they recognize that the county's situation has changed.

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