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O.C. taxpayers shell out for new officials' digs

For four just elected, the $1.1-million tab includes 52-inch flat-screen TVs.

June 03, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach bought an $8,990 desk for the reception foyer of his office, and spent $10,300 on shelving in the supply room.

Supervisor Patricia Bates bought a $3,375 conference table, and a $1,200 executive high-back chair.

Supervisor Janet Nguyen installed $1,300 worth of track lighting with a dimmer switch.

County Treasurer Chriss Street spent nearly $50,000 on 90 office chairs from the high-concept Herman Miller design line.

And all four ordered 52-inch wall-mounted flat-screen televisions. The supervisors' televisions, which will go in their personal offices, cost $4,000 apiece; Street's, in his conference room, cost $7,800.

You might call it "Extreme Makeover: Orange County Government Edition." As one of their first orders of business, Orange County's four newly elected officeholders -- the treasurer and the three new members of the Board of Supervisors -- are collectively spending just over $1.1 million to spruce up their offices in the months since they were sworn in, according to documents reviewed by The Times.

The spending is hardly noticeable in a budget totaling more than $5 billion. But the renovations for the four officeholders are occurring in a county known for its anti-tax attitudes, dim view of government spending and Republicans who boast fiscally conservative credentials.

It also comes as officials weigh funding cuts in their coming budget sessions for services such as drug counseling for court defendants and payments to doctors who provide emergency medical services.

But the officials say they needed to update aging and worn-out surroundings that, in some cases, hadn't been spruced up in 30 years.

Moorlach, whose tab was the highest among the supervisors at $198,525.84, said he felt it was unfair to ask office staff to work in the existing environment. "When I got here, I thought I had moved into an old home in Palm Springs in the 1960s," he said. "It even went beyond my conservative pale. I said, 'Wait a minute, this has got to be upgraded.'

"If I'm asking professionals to work for me on a $6-billion budget," Moorlach said, "it doesn't make sense to ask them to sit on an antique furniture that wouldn't even sell at a garage sale."

Roughly half of the total spent -- $578,550.82 -- was for the treasurer-tax collector's office, which is undergoing a massive renovation aimed at changing the working environment for all of its nearly 100 employees.

Walls are being torn out to create a more open floor plan, and employees who once worked in individual offices are being consolidated in one area designed to look like a miniature version of an investment bank's trading floor. It will be just outside Street's office, separated by a glass wall with a sliding door. Street once worked as a bond trader before being elected county treasurer last year.

Demolition of the walls cost $44,800. One of the torn-down walls was the back of Street's office, thus expanding his work space to where a hallway previously led to an exit door. The door was turned into a window for his office, with installation of the glass walls throughout costing an additional $55,000.

Asked if the changes were needed to carry out the work of the treasurer's office, Street said: "We had $7 billion in cash being managed here, and you couldn't see what people were doing.... There is no way you can even have $100 million managed by people sitting in closed rooms. That's taxpayer funds. It's grossly inappropriate."

County officials said it had been 10 to 18 years since the supervisors' offices had been painted and recarpeted and that the furniture was 20 to 30 years old.

Repairs and renovations such as fresh paint, carpet, blinds and electrical work were dwarfed by the furniture purchases, which cost two to five times as much.

Most of the big-ticket items were desks: chiefs of staff to Bates and Nguyen got them for $6,175 each; the one for Moorlach's chief of staff cost $8,180.

Bates said visitors to her office were appalled at the conditions, which she said included potentially toxic mold behind wood paneling and a "full bevy" of cockroaches in the bathroom. She said the shelving and desks dated from a time when they were not built to hold a computer and telephone at the same time, and before ergonomics was taken into account.

"The cost of all these things are what they are," she said. "It's a public building, and it is to be used by the taxpayers, and in my office, they're in there as much as I am."

Moorlach, who was the first of the three supervisors to take office, was also the first to have his office remodeled. One work order for renovations in Nguyen's office was dated April 6, just 10 days after she was sworn in.

Nguyen said she was told that work was already in progress on other offices, and was encouraged to have hers done at the same time. She referred most questions about her remodel to the county's chief executive officer, but said: "This is a county facility. I don't tell the county when to remodel the bathroom. It happens to be the office that my staff and I work out of. I appreciate them asking what color I prefer."

One former supervisor, state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), was surprised at the price tag for renovations to the office he vacated six months ago. When he was there, he said, he asked that a ripped section of carpet be replaced and covered the cracked glass on a desktop with a book.

"A public office belongs to the taxpayers, not to the elected," he said. "I don't think I need a 52-inch wall-mounted TV to do my job."

In fact, Correa said, he had a regular 36-inch television in his office; he bought it himself and took it with him when he left.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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