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Orange County

El Toro Energy Costs Estimate Off Base

Budget: Spitzer says the miscalculation of future bills may have caused a preschool to close.

November 21, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A consultant's miscalculation about future energy costs for tenants at the former El Toro Marine base raised the ire of a county supervisor Tuesday, who said the blunder may have spurred the closure of a preschool operating at the base.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer grilled Gary Simon, executive director of the county's El Toro planning agency, about Friday's closure of the Community Day Preschool. Spitzer charged that the preschool owners left the base after being told their lease payments and electricity bills could jump more than fourfold, to $4,600 a month.

"This is not an example of how we should run business at El Toro," Spitzer said. The future bills of other El Toro tenants were also miscalculated.

Officials discovered the energy calculation errors this month, Simon said. The calculations were overseen by Tait & Associates of Orange, under contract with Cabaco, the company that manages El Toro for the county.

Simon denied that the error was the reason the preschool closed. He also denied Spitzer's suggestion that the county wanted the school to leave so it could use the space for the county Probation Department.

"The Community Day Preschool has been struggling for quite some time at El Toro," Simon said. "They were not kicked out. On Sept. 23, they gave us 60 days' notice. They said they had debt of $200,000. They owe the county $21,000 for three months in back rent and utilities."

The idea of having probation employees working at the base came up "about a week or two ago," well after school officials told the county they were leaving, Simon said.

The preschool's executive director couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday. A manager at her other day-care center said the base school closed because operators couldn't afford the prospect of future rent and utility increases.

The school was notified by the county in September that its electricity bills could go to $4,600 from $1,000 a month, Simon said. The consultant had calculated bills based on 24 hours of operation for every day of the week, instead of only operating hours. The correct amount is $1,700, he said.

County officials had put the school on a month-to-month lease in June. Spitzer and Supervisor Tom Wilson, opponents of the city's plan to convert El Toro into an airport, have criticized the county's operation of services at the base. The Marines left the property in July 1999.

A report last year estimated the county would lose $4 million a year through 2002 in maintenance and operations costs at El Toro unless additional revenue is found. Supervisors approved $5 million to cover the shortfall but directed county staff to find ways of improving the bottom line.

Simon said Tuesday that the county is working with the engineering consultant to fix the energy calculation errors, which he said were not widespread.

"We're still evaluating what is a very complicated issue," Simon said. "We're certainly looking at our legal options."

The preschool offered rates based on the ability of families to pay, ranging from $70 to $140 per week. The school, which served 86 children at its peak, had about a dozen students when it closed.

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