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Citizens Panel Still Crunching Numbers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most citizens committees formed in the wake of Orange County’s bankruptcy have long since disbanded. Most governmental reform efforts have fallen flat or been swept aside. Most residents have grown weary of the county’s 18-month-old financial crisis and have moved on to other concerns.

Most, but not all.

For nearly two dozen volunteers of the little-known Government Practices Oversight Committee, the lonely mission to expose wasted taxpayer dollars and help create a leaner and more efficient government goes on.

“We’ve stuck together because of our interest in creating something positive out of the bankruptcy debacle,” said Chairwoman Mary Ann Schulte, chief financial officer for Sukat Construction Inc. “We want to make some good come out of the chaos. It’s a vision everyone on the committee shares.”

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Schulte and her colleagues have spent thousands of hours over 15 months interviewing scores of county employees, combing through reams of arcane budget documents and analyzing all areas of the county’s $3.4-billion operations.

Later this month, the group will issue a report containing dozens of specific reform recommendations, touching almost every sector of the bureaucracy, from property tax assessment appeals to Sheriff’s Department staffing levels.

Schulte declined to offer a preview of the recommendations, saying that some key issues have yet to be resolved by the group. But she acknowledged that some of the ideas could be considered radical.

“Not everybody is going to like our answers,” she said.

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For some, the committee’s findings will test the Board of Supervisors’ commitment to the kind of fundamental restructuring that has often been described as the “silver lining” of the bankruptcy.

Some committee members expressed concern that the board will ignore their recommendations, noting that supervisors have yet to implement many findings of the Orange County Grand Jury, as well as those of the now-defunct Privatization Task Force.

“There’s a big fear that the recommendations are going to be shelved,” said one member, who wanted to remain anonymous. “That’s a big fear.”

Moreover, others wonder whether the public’s demand for radical change--which seemed so strong in the months following the bankruptcy--still exists today, less than two weeks before the county plans to emerge from bankruptcy.

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In March, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed county charter designed to reform government by imposing term limits on supervisors, making it easier to contract with private business and reducing the number of elected county officials.

Schulte, however, said she is confident that the vast majority of suggestions will be warmly received. She expects about 90% of the ideas to pass easily, another 6% to require debate and the remaining 4% to possibly face tough opposition.

Supervisors said they still consider reform a crucial element of the county’s financial recovery and vowed to give the committee’s recommendations serious consideration.

“There has to be a fair and open dialogue about how to provide services to the taxpayers in the most efficient way possible,” said Supervisor Don Saltarelli. “Everyone needs to be open-minded and stop protecting their turf.”

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Out of that concern, the committee recently released a 600-page Fact Book that details the budgets, staffing levels and services of all county departments in an effort to clarify the data they are examining.

“We made an overt decision not to make decisions in advance of collecting the data,” she said, adding that the group approached its task in a “nonjudgmental way.”

Dave Kiff, a supervisor’s aide who is one of the few county employees on the committee, said the group was astonished that the county provides more than 150 individual services, including such unexpected duties as boat repairs, carpentry and seamstress work.

“I think it implies the complexity of county. That’s what surprised me,” Schulte added. “We recognized this is a large operation.”

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The Fact Book poses questions about how the various branches of government do business and whether changes would make them more efficient. The questions offer clues about the kinds of suggestions the oversight committee might make.

The most common inquiries focus on whether county departments can contract out more functions or combine their operations with other branches of government.

The committee also questioned city officials about what municipal services could be provided more effectively by the private sector or in cooperation with other agencies.

Schulte said she expected that service consolidation among various government entities could provide significant cost savings.

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But she warned that privatization is a more complex matter.

“Some areas lend themselves to privatization more than others,” she said, adding that contracting out for mandated services such as health care might actually be more expensive. “It makes sense in some areas and absolutely no sense in others.”

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Some of the committee’s most detailed analysis is focused on the county’s law enforcement agencies.

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One area of inquiry concerns the overtime compensation earned by sheriff’s deputies and the controls in place to monitor potential overtime abuse.

According to compensation data released by the county last fall, some deputies increase their base salaries by more than 50% through overtime. One deputy, for example, earned a base salary of $53,700 but received $45,400 in overtime. A sheriff’s sergeant earned a salary of $65,500 and overtime totaling $38,500.

Schulte said the committee tried to understand the underlying causes of the overtime and determine whether it was justified. Law enforcement officials have long defended the hefty overtime earned by officers, saying the practice is cheaper than hiring additional personnel.

The committee also questioned whether the Sheriff’s Department and marshal’s office could save money by using more non-sworn personnel, who earn lower salaries and fewer benefits than full-fledged peace officers.

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Last year, the marshal’s office converted about a dozen sworn deputy jobs to “court services officer” positions in an effort to cut costs. A services officer--who carries a gun and is authorized to make arrests--earns as much as $43,600 in salary and benefits, compared to $63,180 for a deputy marshal.

While use of the civilian officers appears to save money, Schulte said that state and federal laws require that many law enforcement jobs be filled by sworn officers, limiting the county’s ability to make changes.

Beyond law enforcement, the committee examined the county’s administration of dozens of unincorporated islands that are home to more than 100,000 residents.

Some urban planners have long advocated the annexation of the islands by surrounding cities, which are better able to provide municipal services and local representation.

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The committee is also examining the assessor’s office with an eye on the well-publicized backlog of property tax assessment appeals.

The backlog was caused by declining real estate values that prompted thousands of homeowners and businesses to seek reductions in their tax assessments.

The Fact Book asks whether an across-the-board assessment reduction would be more effective than having the county examine each case individually.

But Schulte said a rollback is only one--though probably the most drastic--of several options the committee is considering to improve the appeals process.

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