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Bureaucracy's Worst Side

May 21, 2003

The La Habra Family Center had an extraordinary excuse for coming in four hours late with its application for a county grant. Too bad it ran into a bureaucrat whose intransigence was even more extraordinary.

For six years, the center -- operating from a temporary building on a middle-school campus -- has offered services to the poor, from prenatal and dental care to parenting classes and temporary housing. An Orange County supervisor lauded the program last year for its "outstanding contribution."

It looked like a shoo-in for its next round of funding from the county, which would have provided $225,000 a year for three years.

But the grant writer, who has battled cancer for years, fell ill just days before the deadline. Her cancer had spread to her spine, bringing on blinding headaches and mental confusion. Center staffers picked up the specialized job of writing a thick grant proposal. They finished two hours before the deadline, then had to send the document to the printers, which returned it six hours later.

If the contract manager for the Orange County Social Services Agency was moved by the little nonprofit's woes, she didn't show it. She hears all kinds of excuses, Maritza Rodriguez Farr told Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb. "At what point do you decide what is legitimate and what is not legitimate?" she said.

By using common sense and compassion, perhaps? This is no fly-by-night group claiming its administrator had the flu. Rodriguez Farr easily could have verified the story -- and given thought to the thousands of people who, without La Habra Family Center, won't get immunizations, prenatal care, teeth cleaning and counseling. The county refusal probably means the center will lose out on state funding as well and have to shut its doors.

Rodriguez Farr said she simply was following procedures. Computers can do that. We pay public servants to demonstrate more sophistication. Orange County's Board of Supervisors, which is to vote on the grants June 3, can do better.

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