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Watching County Expenses

June 01, 2003

Recent revelations about Orange County's management of personnel issues make clear the need for better oversight.

The county's interim executive officer, Jim Ruth, said last month that he would follow policy more closely -- something he and his predecessor, Michael Schumacher, should have been doing in the first place -- when it comes to granting paid leaves.

Employees who come under question for alleged misdeeds have sat home on leave, with full salary and benefits, for up to two years while supervisors investigated. In contrast, San Diego County manages to clear almost all of its investigations within 30 days, and takes a sharp look at any leave that drags on longer.

Some paid leave is necessary. No one wants an errant employee to continue working in law enforcement or another sensitive job. But dragged-out investigations waste taxpayer money and leave workers in limbo. In fact, supervisors learned of the issue when a Probation Department staffer complained about the length of her paid leave.

Just days after Ruth delivered his promise, the grand jury reported that the county's human resources department approved benefits for county workers that could cost an extra $75 million. It specifically criticized a 50% increase in retirement benefits for sheriff's deputies and firefighters, and a 2% bonus plan for employees who meet performance goals.

The pension plan brings the county in line with much of the rest of California, but there's a big question whether Orange County can afford it. Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach says no. Los Angeles and Ventura counties resisted the push to lush retirement packages for public workers, which are now coming back to haunt other cash-strapped counties.

The bonus is a good idea gone awry. Intended to bring a much-needed merit system to civil service, it awards bonuses to 95% of county employees -- on top of their raises -- at a cost of $15 million a year. That amounts to a virtual entitlement rather than a reward for outstanding work. Two percent of annual income is a week's pay, a nice sum. Money like that should go only to performance above and beyond the norm.

All personnel issues that cost the county money, from labor contracts to leaves, should undergo examination by Moorlach's staff for an economic impact report as well as getting a look from the chief executive's office.

Perhaps some form of commission, as proposed by the grand jury, could help keep a closer watch. But nothing will help unless supervisors heed red flags about overspending -- something they didn't do when Moorlach complained about the pensions.

With a budget shortfall and looming layoffs, the county needs to consider every tool possible to treat both employees and taxpayers fairly.

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