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$37 Million in O.C. Services Studied for Privatization : Finances: Task force lists 43 government operations it thinks might be better handled by businesses.


SANTA ANA — After weeks of studying Orange County government operations, a blue-ribbon task force has identified more than $37 million worth of services that it believes might be better managed by private businesses.

The task force, which has brought together local business leaders and top county officials, is still working to prepare a short list of recommendations for the County Board of Supervisors. But task force members have already picked out 43 government operations--from tree-trimming to alcohol outpatient clinics to the county Harbor Patrol--that they feel are worthy of further study.

Of those, 15 operations are considered "priority one" options, indicating the county might save significant sums of money, with little opposition, by turning those functions over to the private sector. Those include school crossing guard services, bridge inspections and various park operations.

In addition, the task force has also compiled dozens of ideas that the county might consider for raising money. They include charging county workers for parking, increasing fees for immunization shots for people planning to travel abroad and even sponsoring paid seminars on "How to Do Business With the County."

All told, the task force recommendations--which are still in draft form and will be revised before the top dozen or so suggestions are sent to the Board of Supervisors--lay out a tentative blueprint for what proponents envision as a pared-down and more efficient county government. But some recommendations threaten to stir controversy as well, as employee unions and others are expected to oppose them fiercely.

"As we get leaner and leaner, the buzzword is going to be privatization, " said Supervisor Don R. Roth. "But you've got one obstacle after another. There's more obstacles than meet the eye."

In some cases, state or local legislation may be needed before the county can contract out a service. Roth has suggested that the county adopt its own charter, which he and other officials believe might make it easier for the government to contract out some of its operations.

While many of the task force suggestions appear likely to win easy support, others, including the Harbor Patrol idea, already have opponents lined up and ready to take issue.

"I think it's really shortsighted," Robert J. McLeod, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. "To think that there is some ability to privatize a service as diverse and difficult as the Harbor Patrol is just beyond my comprehension. I would have to conclude that the members of this task force don't have the slightest idea what these officers do."

John H. Sawyer, president of the Orange County Employees Assn., also expressed concern about the prospect of contracting out government services.

"This can be very dangerous," he said. "We think there are a lot of problems with this. We know they want to save money, but contractors can cut corners, and the public agency gets left holding the bag."

Members of the task force acknowledge that there are likely to be disagreements about specific suggestions, but they say that the discussions so far have been fruitful and that county officials have embraced many of the proposed changes.

"I've been very pleased by the openness and receptiveness of the county department heads," said Todd Nicholson, executive director of the Industrial League of Orange County. "They've shown a willingness to consider all of these ideas."

County department heads, in fact, helped generate a list of 144 suggestions for possible private contracting. That list is what the task force is working from. Members of the panel narrow the areas at each of their meetings, hoping to eventually bring 10 or 12 suggestions to the county supervisors for their consideration.

The details of those meetings are not clear, however, because the task force has elected to bar members of the press and public from its sessions.

County budget director Ronald S. Rubino, a member of the task force, said the group has chosen to meet in private because county officials want the sessions to be as candid as possible. The group's final reports will be made public, he added.

Still, several of the panel members discussed its deliberations in general terms this week, and The Times obtained the list of ideas that members have tentatively endorsed for further study.

Among the suggestions for privatization:

* Serving food in the county's five jails, Juvenile Hall and the Orangewood Children's Home--a major undertaking that county officials have yet to put a price tag on.

* Providing crossing guards near schools. Current price: about $445,000 a year.

* Conducting bridge inspections. Current price: $22,055 a year.

* Landscaping and maintaining county parks, trimming trees, controlling rodents and other pests and collecting trash from campsites. Current price: About $500,000 a year.

* Custodial and landscaping services in the Santa Ana Civic Center. Current price: $11.8 million a year.

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