By: Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer
Orange County is in negotiations with five of its seven employee groups—and it couldn’t have come at a tougher time.
The County is facing unprecedented financial hardship: $50 million in promised State funds evaporated in the past year and the County must repay the State another $150 million on top of that. Diverting State prisoners to County jails will cost $6 million more than expected. Rising health and retirement costs will consume an extra $14 million next year just staying with the status quo.
Something has to give.
“I am committed to a fair solution that protects taxpayers and critical County services,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said. “We will work hard with our labor groups to protect them. They worked hard in Sacramento to protect our tax dollars from the State raid but were unsuccessful in their efforts to protect Orange County’s dollars.”
When it comes to getting back a share of local property taxes, Orange County government is dead last: 58th out of California’s 58 counties. Orange County gets just 6 cents on the dollar—the average for all counties is 17 cents. Meanwhile, the State keeps pushing programs downstream that cost more than the funding provided to support them. Simply put, the County cannot continue doing the State’s job while getting pennies on the dollar. There will be—and are now—needs that won’t be met.
Tough decisions are ahead. Its nearly 16,000 employees are the County’s single greatest investment and asset. Salaries and benefits consume nearly one-third of the entire $5.4 billion budget.
This is not news to labor groups. The County has been speaking regularly with them about the financial realities of this year and next. The County asked the State to free up more of the taxes that flow from Orange County to Sacramento—and offered those additional dollars for employees first. But that deal fell apart when labor could not coalesce its own “supporters” in Sacramento. Now the County must maintain quality services, shepherd enough reserve funds for emergencies and protect employees from harsh layoffs and program reductions while shouldering the increased cost of providing for their pensions and health care.
Amid the dueling priorities, one truth remains: Working for County government still offers greater long-term security than most private-sector jobs. Individual salaries have increased in recent years through “step” increases awarded on merit. Employees are being recognized for their excellent work.
Thankfully, better days are in sight. As the economy improves and the real-estate market rebound catches up with property values, more resources will flow for critical services such as public safety, operating the jails, building and maintaining public facilities, and continuing programs for the neediest among us. Expect two more years of fiscal austerity and then we can all breathe easier.