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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES

Dark Clouds Amid County's Sunny Outlook

Optimism on economy and quality of life is tempered by dim views of public officials.

January 04, 1998|MARK BALDASSARE and CHERYL KATZ | Mark Baldassare and Cheryl Katz are co-directors of the Orange County Annual Survey. Baldassare's most recent book, "When Government Fails: The Orange County Bankruptcy," will be published this year by the University of California Press

Orange County is heading toward the millennium with some very positive trends underway. Ratings of the economy and quality of life here are at record highs, according to our 1997 Orange County Annual Survey conducted at UC Irvine. But while residents have regained their enthusiasm about many aspects of life in Orange County, the return of confidence in county officials since the December 1994 bankruptcy has lagged behind.

Among the positive social, economic and political trends in this year's survey: Two in three residents think the local economy is in excellent or good shape, which is the highest it has been this decade. Nine in 10 give high marks to the county's quality of life, also a new high for the '90s. And residents are increasingly optimistic about the county's future.

Consumer confidence is the highest we've found since we began asking this question 11 years ago, and once again is surpassing the national ratings. Confidence in the housing market has returned, with 70% of homeowners and 56% of renters saying that buying a home here is an excellent or good investment.

Opinions of the county's public schools have improved steadily this decade, with half now giving the schools excellent or good ratings. Parents are even more upbeat. Orange County clearly is in the midst of a renaissance, enjoying what amounts to some of the best of times for the economy and quality of life. But though this year's survey finds much to celebrate, there are a number of findings that are cause for concern:

The El Toro airport issue has opened up a wide fissure. In North County, residents favor building a new airport by a small margin, while residents in South County are strongly opposed. The survey finds a fair amount of ambivalence among residents overall--only one in four say an airport is their preferred use for the base, and most think John Wayne can continue to meet the county's air travel needs by itself.

Orange County faces the critical land-use issue of the El Toro Marine base at a time when residents have little trust for the people at the helm. Fewer than one in four approve of the way county government has handled the base-conversion issue. Further, only one in four say county government does an excellent or good job in solving problems overall, and four in 10 think county leaders pay little attention to their needs. This confidence gap threatens to stall any plans to put this valuable land to good use.

Concerns with traffic and growth are on the rise again. Together, mention of these two issues as the county's most important problem rose 10 points since last year. This coincides with the long-term diversion of transportation tax funds to pay off the county's bankruptcy debts.

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Residents are reluctant to improve their schools with higher taxes. Fewer than half would approve a tax increase for the local schools, and most are unwilling to change the required super-majority vote for passage of school bonds or tax hikes. Thus, Orange County's schools will need to continue relying on outside help in the form of state funds.

Many residents are politically disengaged. Four in 10 have little or no interest in politics and three in 10 vote infrequently at best. Orange County is in the unenviable position of having a populace that is less involved politically than the rest of the U.S.

This year's survey found a positive outlook among Latinos, who, at a quarter of the population, are one of the fastest-growing groups in Orange County today. More than half say they are better off financially this year than last, and most look forward to even better finances next year.

Eight in 10 give positive ratings to the quality of life in Orange County, and many also look favorably on its housing market. Although the political views of Latinos are in many ways similar to the rest of the county's, Latinos are even more politically estranged. Six in 10 Latinos say they are infrequent voters, and 42% say they never vote. Such low levels of participation prevent this important segment of the county from being heard.

If Orange County is going to be able to take the next step forward, we must breathe new life into the county government's political process. Our success in the next century also depends on making sure that traffic improvements keep pace with economic growth, as well as on taking steps on our own to improve our local public schools and finding a way to engage more residents in politics and elections.

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