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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Time to Roll Up the Sleeves

January 05, 2003

So this is what a new year really looks like. For the first time in a decade, Orange County isn't feuding over the fate of the former El Toro Marine air base. Voters settled that issue in March, and it's up to the city of Irvine to fulfill its pledge to build a tax-free Great Park on the former base.

What's going to keep county supervisors and other elected officials busy during the new year? The immediate hurdle will be the tidal wave of pain generated by the state's massive budget shortfall. The crisis will delay highway improvements, further stress the county's public health-care delivery systems and make it more difficult to get a quality education.

But there are plenty of other issues on the horizon, starting with water. A high-profile solution calls for Southern California to build seven oceanfront desalinization plants, including facilities in Huntington Beach and Dana Point, at a cumulative cost of $1 billion. But the county can't afford to ignore less glamorous proposals, such as replenishing underground aquifers.

Ocean pollution also must be tackled. The Orange County Sanitation District approved a $270-million plan to treat sewage now being dumped into the ocean. But that big, important step isn't enough; the county also must remedy the witch's brew of motor oil, pesticides and other toxins running into the ocean through storm drains.

Measure M will generate about $4.5 billion in sales tax revenue over its lifetime for transit projects. But that won't be enough to prevent gridlock in a county that expects to add 600,000 residents by 2025. Some alternatives -- including a proposed tunnel under the Cleveland National Forest to connect job-rich Orange County with the Inland Empire's relative wealth of housing -- will generate controversy.

Orange County can no longer afford to ignore the needs of low-paid workers. Employers won't stay in the county if workers can't afford to live here. Elected officials and planners must press developers to include low-cost housing in future developments.

County residents did the right thing in November by approving $804 million in school bond measures that will fund badly needed renovations of old buildings and construction of new facilities at primary, secondary and college campuses. But in the face of the state's budget crisis, teachers and school administrators must work as allies, not foes, to ensure that instructional programs don't suffer.

Orange County has skimped on health care for too long. This is a county with nearly 3 million residents -- but no true county hospital and just $47 million budgeted for indigent care.

Whatever the courts decide about Measure V, which created a politically venal and poorly designed charter, supervisors should pursue a truly worthwhile set of guidelines for operating county government. The county could set up a volunteer charter commission to look into laying the groundwork.

The county also must do a better job of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse population. Two years ago, the first babies born in the new year came to immigrant parents from Cambodia and Mexico.

So, one birth at a time, the county's racial makeup is changing. But the new demographics are creating a potentially dangerous divide. A recent survey shows that whites view exploding growth, traffic and transportation as the biggest threats to the county's celebrated lifestyle. Latinos, however, are more worried about the faltering economy and crime.

Despite real and perceived problems, most county residents are happy to be here and believe things will continue to improve. Elected officials must respond to residents by developing and adhering to constructive policies that keep that optimistic spirit alive.

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