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THE TIMES POLL : Most Californians Back Bailout of Orange County


COSTA MESA — State leaders should help bail Orange County out of its financial crunch but should seek to transfer control of the county's financial affairs from the County Board of Supervisors to a panel of experts, according to a new Times Poll of Californians.

The poll, conducted this week, undercuts the widespread belief that residents outside Orange County are ambivalent, or even hostile, to state aid for the bankrupt county, whose $1.7-billion investment loss has fueled a financial crisis that threatens services provided by schools, cities and the county.

In fact, 54% of those surveyed believe it is in the state's long-term interest to take an active role in assisting Orange County with guaranteed loans. About half the respondents are concerned the county's financial problems threaten the economic well-being of the entire state.

"I think it's up to the state to help out someone in distress," said Kenneth Hall, 75, a retired postal worker from San Bernardino. "Whether the bankruptcy happened through neglect or whatever, these things happen. If we can bail out Mexico, I think there should be some compassion and the state should lend a helping hand."

The Times Poll, supervised by John Brennan, surveyed 1,390 adults statewide March 4-9. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

More of those surveyed had an unfavorable view of Orange County than a favorable view. But even among those who dislike the area, more than half believe the state should provide some financial help.

"Orange County is an asset and should be helped out in its bankruptcy," said Pompee Chakraborty, 24, of Sunnyvale. But the San Jose State University student says the financial disaster has taken some of the luster off the county's reputation.

"I once had a favorable impression of Orange County, but now, of course, it's unfavorable," she said.

Not everyone shares the view that the state should provide loans.

"Orange County (legislators have) frequently, over the past few years, voted down emergency aid to other counties," said Richard Wood, 35, an unemployed technical marketing consultant from San Francisco. "If the residents there are going to elect people like that, then I think Orange County should have to go it alone."

Although there was broad endorsement of the idea of state aid, the strongest support in the poll came for a proposal by Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego) to strip the Board of Supervisors of its fiscal responsibilities and install a financial oversight authority. Two-thirds of respondents statewide favored that idea.

"How could those politicians let things get so far out of control and allow one person to have so much control over so many people's lives?" asked Robert DeClusin, 52, a construction worker in Redding, in an apparent reference to former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron's management of the county's investment portfolio. "If the people they've got in there in Orange County are too incompetent to handle things, then someone else should. I've only got a 7th-grade education, but I know that if (I) spend $20 and take in $10, I've got a problem."

As recently as Wednesday, Orange County leaders pleaded with members of the state Assembly to provide loan guarantees, mostly to help county schools that invested heavily in the collapsed investment pool.

But Democratic legislators have been largely unsympathetic to Orange County's plight, repeatedly asking local officials why they are willing to seek handouts but refuse to raise taxes.

But regardless of party affiliation, political ideology, gender, education, age or income, respondents in the Times Poll favor the idea of guaranteed loans that the state would have to repay only if Orange County could not. Among ethnic groups, only African Americans do not favor a bailout.

Those who identify themselves as liberal or Democratic were particularly likely to believe the state should get involved, although conservatives and Republicans favored Sacramento's help by a wide margin as well. Highly educated people and those with larger incomes favor state help by bigger margins.

The poll's findings were welcomed by Orange County officials, who have warned state lawmakers that the impact of the bankruptcy will be felt up and down the state. William J. Popejoy, the county's chief executive officer, found the results unexpected.

"I'm very pleased and heartened to hear of those results, but I'm very surprised also," he said. "That was not the response we received in Sacramento, and though they were very polite and listened to us, I didn't come away with any feeling that there was a groundswell of support for Orange County's request.

"Well," Popejoy said, "I hope the people in Sacramento are watching this."

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