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Our Fair Share Would Help

March 16, 2003

If there was a bright spot in the hatcheting of $102 million from the Orange County budget, it was that the task was accomplished in a thoughtful, collegial manner.

The most dismal aspect of the sad affair is that if the county received anything close to its fair share of state money, it would have funds to preserve much of the health care, child-abuse prevention and low-cost housing it is being forced to cut. But county residents are the victims of an outdated and out-of-all-proportion formula for allocating money that is grossly unfair to Orange and several other Southern California counties. A legislative fix in the works faces an uphill battle.

As it is, 2,600 low-cost-housing units will not be built though high prices force many people to flee the county. Some pregnant women and elderly residents will go without preventive care. Abused children might stay in dangerous homes longer, because of lack of staff to check out their situations.

The depth and spread of the cuts were unsurprising given the county's dismal financial condition. Far more surprising was how little rancor and protest accompanied the budget slicing and dicing.

Much of the credit belongs to Gary Burton, the county's retiring finance director. Instead of taking the easier road of across-the-board cuts that would pull a given percentage out of every department budget, Burton set priorities that preserved as much as possible of such core programs as health care and public safety. Supervisors abandoned most pet projects, such as promoting film, tourism and the arts. The budget includes only one new capital project, the South County courthouse, with a modified financing scheme that spreads out payments over many years.

Burton also went to the community, talking to just about every group that might have a vested interest in the budget, including senior citizens and ethnic groups, and laying out the county's dire financial situation.

Burton's work paid off when the supervisors adopted the cuts this month. There were no activists waving protest signs, no angry public outbursts, no program directors hotly asserting they could not possibly get along without more money. Perhaps it helped that there was no real pot of discretionary money to fight over.

The only long-term treatment for this budget malaise, aside from paying down the county's $881-million bankruptcy debt, is for Orange County and several of its neighbors to push for a greater share of state funding. The county now gets to keep 7% of the property tax money it collects, the lowest percentage in California. The statewide average is 19%. San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties are in similar, though less drastic, straits.

The formula that created this disparity was cooked up shortly after Proposition 13 passed in 1978, and was based on the tax rates in the various counties before the property tax-cutting initiative. But a quarter of a century ago, this county was still covered with huge swaths of agrarian land. The population was much smaller and there was less demand for public services.

Orange County now is the fifth-largest county in the United States and shares many of the urban ills that come with such growth. Though a comparatively rich county, an August 2002 report found that 1 in 3 county children lives in poverty.

Funding of counties should be based on fairness and need, not on rigid, archaic formulas.

Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) has introduced a bill to narrow the huge disparities in county funding. AB 1568 would raise the percentages of donor counties over four years until no county would get less than 15 1/2% of its property taxes. Though it won't help the current budget crisis, the bill deserves serious consideration.

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