Four months after promising a bold reorganization of Orange County’s ailing government, Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier is scheduled to finally unveil her overhaul plan next week to a curious but skeptical public.
Details of the restructuring effort--which calls for the elimination of two giant county agencies and the centralization of authority in Mittermeier’s office--have been kept under tight wraps.
But some key pieces emerged this week. Supervisor Don Saltarelli estimated the plan will save the county about $10 million, mostly through job cuts.
Other county sources indicated that 200 jobs are likely to be eliminated. Most of those cuts should be absorbed through attrition, the sources said, though some layoffs are possible, especially in the middle-management ranks.
Mittermeier is also expected to recommend that the Harbors, Beaches and Parks Department be folded into the Public Works Department despite protests from equestrians, hikers and others who fear the move would erode recreational services. Keeping the department separate would cost about $1 million a year.
The overhaul is being closely watched by other local governments considering their own “restructuring” reforms as well as by anxious county employees still reeling from the hundreds of layoffs that followed Orange County’s bankruptcy filing nearly two years ago.
Supervisors strongly support Mittermeier’s plan, insisting it will reduce layers of bureaucracy and cut costs that can be used to pay off bankruptcy debts or restore public services cut during the financial crisis.
“What this does is flatten the organization,” said Supervisor William G. Steiner. “The whole bureaucratic structure now has many layers of supervision and management, which stifles communication and is not terribly efficient. . . . You see these changes occurring in the private sector.”
But skeptics remain: Some believe the initiative goes too far, while others say it doesn’t go far enough.
Employee union leaders fear the reorganization will eliminate important levels of oversight that protect the county against shoddy work and even fraud.
Todd Spitzer, elected to the board Tuesday and one of three new supervisors to take office by January, said the reorganization should also take into account recommendations from county citizen panels formed after the bankruptcy, including the Government Practices Oversight Committee.
The committee, made up of business people, community activists and others, submitted a voluminous critique of county government, which it described as “dysfunctional.” The study suggested dozens of reforms that are far more ambitious than what Mittermeier has proposed.
“This election represented a new mandate from voters. People want a change in political conduct,” said Spitzer, a deputy district attorney who lives in Brea.
“I’m eager to see what the CEO has to recommend,” he added. “If I’m not happy with what I’m seeing, certainly we could implement new recommendations when the new supervisors join the board. I would expect the new board members to have a voice in this process.”
Mittermeier announced the reorganization in June, the same month Orange County emerged from its 18-month bankruptcy. Since then, the CEO and her staff have reviewed business plans from each county department and will present a final plan to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 19.
To emerge from bankruptcy, the county issued $800 million in bonds that must be repaid over the next 30 years. This debt makes the cost savings and efficiencies gained through restructuring crucial for smooth county operations, Mittermeier said.
Her plan eliminates the General Services Agency and Environmental Management Agency, which employ more than 2,000 of the county’s 14,000 workers and have a combined budget of $100 million.
Maintenance, purchasing and other internal functions now handled by the GSA would be turned over to individual county departments in a move Mittermeier says will cut bureaucratic red tape and require fewer workers.
The EMA, which handles land-use planning, code enforcement, public works, flood control, parks and transportation, would be broken up into two new departments: Planning and Public Works.
Saltarelli, who leaves the board in December, said the reorganization continues a staff cutting trend that began last year with the bankruptcy layoffs and early retirements. He declined to predict how many workers and managers will be affected by the latest changes.
“No doubt there is going to be some pain,” Saltarelli said. “For some in upper middle management, there is not going to be enough space. We are trying to keep as many good people as we can because we have tremendous talent in the county.”
Workers describe the atmosphere as tense in the two departments slated for elimination. “The feeling is ‘When is this ever going to end?’ ” said Frank Eley, president of the Orange County Employees Assn. “This has been going on for two years and it seems to just dragging on.”
Some employees maintain that the bureaucratic hierarchy actually provide a crucial oversight of county operations. It’s unrealistic to believe the county can slash staffing level and still provide the same level of service, they add.
Mittermeier has come under fire from some community activists for bringing the reorganization before the lame duck board instead of waiting until the three new supervisors are seated in January.
“She should wait for the new people to get there,” said Carole Walters, president of the Orange Taxpayers Assn. “They are the ones who are going to have to live with the plan.”
Steiner said that regardless of which board votes on Mittermeier’s proposal, the new supervisors will have ample opportunity to shape the county’s reforms.
“The three new board members are going to play a very significant role in moving the agenda forward,” Steiner said. “I think they are going to keep the pressure on. What we are doing is laying the foundation for significant changes.”
County officials said Friday that Mittermeier will unveil the final plan several days before the Nov. 19 board meeting, giving the public plenty of time to examine it. Mittermeier was criticized in June for making the preliminary proposal public just one day before the board voted on it.