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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

This Should Bug Taxpayers

August 24, 2003

The state got everything it bargained for when it hired the Orange County Vector Control District to fight fire ants in the southern part of the county. The district has done such an exemplary job that pest-control managers from other afflicted areas travel to the county to pick up tips. Vector Control, meanwhile, picks up enough extra cash from this and other outside contracts to keep its workers on staff and its public operations running without raising homeowner fees.

So why is the state disputing the district's actions? Because Vector Control paid its public employees extra money to perform this and other outside contracts, even though much of the work was done on county time. The state's anger is hard to fathom. It got good service for the fee it agreed to pay. How the district spends its money at that point seems none of the state's business.

It is, however, Orange County taxpayers' business, and this is where Vector Control's policies need reexamination. County residents and businesses are paying the full-time salaries for these public employees, which means they should be working full time on the county's pest-control needs. Instead, they're spending some of their public-paid time working for UC Irvine, the U.S. Naval Weapons Station, the state Department of Transportation and Disneyland's California Adventure. Since most of these contracts are with other public agencies, the taxpayer ends up paying twice for the same work -- once for a county employee's salary, the other for UC Irvine to get its pest-control work done.

If outside jobs take employees into overtime work and the contract covers that cost, fine. But the use of county payroll for anything other than county work not only charges the public unfairly, it also makes it hard to avoid conflicts of interest. These bonuses set up a continuing temptation for employees to spend time on outside projects that will bring them extra money.

If Vector Control doesn't have enough work to keep all its employees busy full time, then the contracts are a smart way to keep them employed, as long as employees aren't drawing what amounts to two salaries. It's in the public's interest to keep its pest-control staff at full strength. Sudden emergencies, such as the current battle against West Nile virus, require considerable manpower and expertise on a moment's notice.

The district's entrepreneurial approach to keeping itself and the public healthy is commendable. Just as private companies increasingly do public work, there's no reason a smart, efficient public agency shouldn't be able to work on contracts outside its usual sphere. The Human Relations Commission has long done that, to everyone's benefit, by providing mediation services to the county's courts. Those services save the courts and taxpayers money and help bring in money so the commission can fulfill its central mission.

The district could clean up the potential for such conflicts with a simple rule of ethical conduct: The Orange County public should pay only for county work. Hours spent on outside jobs should be paid only by those contracts. And Vector Control shouldn't need the state to tell it that double-dipping is an inappropriate way to conduct business.

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