The memorial for Kelly Thomas, a homeless schizophrenic man who was killed… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)
The organization that tracks hate crimes and racial intolerance in Orange County is at risk of having its county funding gutted, a money-saving move that some say could unravel 41 years of hard work in a county that has grown increasingly diverse.
A county supervisor is proposing a two-thirds reduction in the money given to the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which leaders say could cripple the group's effectiveness in handling potentially volatile situations.
It was the commission, supporters say, that stepped in to calm an angry city when a homeless man died after a violent confrontation with police at a downtown Fullerton transit center. It was the commission that helped organize a town hall forum in Santa Ana after a Latino councilwoman compared a Jewish businessman to Hitler.
More than 50 religious and civic leaders have now written county supervisors to protest the cuts, which the board is expected to review Tuesday.
"It's just a sign of a lack of value in the work of the Human Relations Commission," said director Rusty Kennedy, who has been with the organization for 35 years.
The commission was created in 1971 as a county agency. Twenty years later, the nonprofit Orange County Human Relations Council was created to raise additional money to extend the group's reach.
Last year, the supervisors eliminated all of the county staff positions at the council, a move that Kennedy said forced him to retire. But the county then contracted with the nonprofit to work on research, school programs and community relations.
Chairman John Moorlach, who unsuccessfully proposed a $100,000 cut to the commission last year and supports the move to cut $200,000 this year, called the nonprofit a "success story" because of the funding it has been able to secure.
With rising pension costs, he said, less financial support should be expected from the county. He said that the nonprofit has done a "super" job of moving toward independence.
"This is a model," he said. "Why not, somewhere along the way, cut the cord?"
But Kennedy and many of his supporters say the proposed reduction, which would leave the commission with only $100,000 in county money, would hurt.
"This would be a devastating cut to us," Kennedy said. "It eliminates a significant portion of our budget."
Supervisor Shawn Nelson said he proposed the $200,000 reduction because Kennedy is a county retiree who is drawing a salary from a nonprofit that is contracting with the county.
"Retirement is supposed to be retirement," he said. "It looks a little suspicious."
Nelson, a former Fullerton mayor, also said he was disappointed in the commission's response to the beating death of the homeless man, Kelly Thomas.
"I had people ready to erupt, start flipping vehicles over, and Rusty Kennedy was nowhere to be found," he said.
The cuts wouldn't sink the nonprofit, which brought in about $1.4 million in revenue in the 2010 fiscal year. But contributions and grants have declined, decreasing by as much as 48% from 2009 to 2010, according to the group's 990 tax form.
The reduction in county money, however, would eliminate Kennedy's salary and cut into funding for other employees and office support.
In March, the commission co-sponsored a packed forum in Anaheim after a 21-year-old father was fatally shot by police, igniting anger in the community. A local street gang was believed to have put out a contract on an Anaheim police officer, and the commission helped dispel dangerous rumors, Chief John Welter said in a letter sent to supervisors Monday.
"Their assistance positively impacted the outcome of our community meeting," Welter said Thursday through a spokesman. "We are always appreciative of their assistance."
Debbie Phares, the executive director of a faith-based community organizing group, said the commission has a long, trusted history in Orange County.
She said many would like to forget the county's past as a haven for Ku Klux Klan members, and its once-segregated schools.
With the area's increasingly diverse population and growth as a minority-majority county, groups like the commission are essential, she said.
"Misunderstandings and miscommunications are bound to arise," she said.