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Agency to Get Hiring Funds

O.C. supervisors OK $700,000 for the planning department, which needs workers after last year's financial collapse and layoffs.

June 12, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Remembering the financial debacle that led to massive layoffs in Orange County's planning department last year, the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved, then froze, nearly $700,000 the department says it needs to hire temporary workers.

Bryan Speegle, the department's acting director, said it needs help to deal with a backlog of about 4,000 building permits issued under the former flat-fee program. The department's financial collapse was blamed on those fees, which did not cover the actual cost of inspections on new construction in unincorporated areas of the county.

By a 3-to-2 vote, the board agreed to set aside the money for the additional workers but will release it only if planning officials prove they need it. Supervisors Chris Norby and Bill Campbell wanted to set aside only half that amount.

The board's vote came on the last of two days of budget hearings in which several county departments got less money than their administrators said was required to continue current services. Among the hardest hit were the county's health care and social services agencies, both of which rely heavily on state funding. The board is scheduled to approve the final budget June 24.

Speegle said Wednesday's conditional approval means he'll have to return for approval to hire the temporary workers, but he was satisfied.

"It's a good thing," he said. "They gave us the flexibility to come back and justify the workload. If they hadn't budgeted it, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to come back and ask for positions."

The planning department operated in the red for much of 2000-02, spending more than $24 million in reserves and bailout money -- mostly because its charges did not cover the cost of service, officials later concluded.

By state law, county planning departments are supposed to survive off the fees they collect from builders. And a slump in building starts had hurt revenue, leading the planning department to spend its reserves for payroll and other expenses.

In December, at the height of the financial crisis, department director Thomas Mathews took early retirement. The department has since raised its fees and reduced staffing, from 205 to 145, in an effort to become self-sufficient, Speegle said.

The backlog of 4,000 permit applications could take nearly a year to complete, and under the terms of those permits, builders cannot be charged more for additional inspections, Speegle said.

"If they call, we're still required to provide the service."

Norby and Campbell expressed concern that the department still was depending on the county general fund for help. In May, the board voted to forgive an $8-million loan to the planning department last year. "They were living off the general fund for a while," Norby said. "They're not supposed to do that. They're supposed to be self-sufficient. We've got to keep a lid on it."

Campbell said they need to keep an eye on the agency during this transition period.

The problem for planning officials is finding a staffing level to work during peak construction months but not during slower months, Speegle said. Using temporary workers may be the answer, he said.

"We just want them to be self-sufficient and flexible so they can expand if there's a lot of building permits and contract if there's not," Norby said.

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