MOORLACH UPDATE — Ending Homelessness — January 27, 2012

My morning was spent at the bimonthly meeting of the Commission to End Homelessness.  At this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting we voted to approve the final Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness and the Commission to End Homelessness Bylaws (agenda item #31).  We also heard the quarterly report from Executive Director Steve Kight and approved Policy Recommendations for Year-Round Emergency Shelter and directed OC Community Resources staff to develop a Funding Allocation Policy and Process (FAPP) for the Year-Round Emergency Shelter.  It was the discussion on the emergency shelter potential location that was addressed in the MOORLACH UPDATE — New Chair — January 25, 2012.

The Commission to End Homelessness is designed to work with the County, the cities, public safety representatives, the nonprofits, and the business community to work together on this issue.  It is to break down the silos and provide communication and mutual focus on a shared goal.  Yet, many come to the meetings under the assumption that we should be doing their specific projects or spending money on certain urgent homeless needs.  Others get it and bring ideas to benefit the whole.  Today someone recommended one agency buying bus tickets for everyone to obtain a larger discount.  Brilliant.  But, misconceptions can happen.  We’re all passionate and we’re all under a sense of urgency.  Accordingly, we have met all of our first-year milestones.  Do I wish we could do more?  Absolutely!

The Voice of OC provides a piece below that tries to expand on the topic, but seems to prove my point.  Therefore, let me provide a little help.

1)      It was never the “Commission to End Homelessness by 2020,” but was the “Ending Homelessness 2020 Board.”  The name was recently changed to the Commission to End Homelessness for branding purposes in order to be consistent with efforts across the County to end homelessness. 

2)      The article asserts that the County is backing away from its previously stated goal to end homelessness by 2020 by changing its name.  This assertion is incorrect.  A name change is not a policy change, and the time-frame is still in the mission and vision statements. 

3)      The assertion that the County isn’t putting money behind the effort, other than a one-time $75,000 contribution towards the salary of the executive director is also incorrect.  This overlooks the millions of dollars obtained annually by the County on behalf of the homeless and other related programs.  As is stated in the Ten-Year Plan (which is an inch thick and hardly lacking in specifics), in 2010/11 County agencies allocated approximately $67 million in funding for programs assisting homeless individuals and families.

4)      Getting an all-inclusive and accurate point in time count of the homeless on an annual basis has not been feasible due to the lack of resources.  That neighboring counties are doing this is great, but the OC is doing what it can afford to do at this time.   Efforts have been focused in Orange County on improving participation in the Homeless Management Information System, which overtime, with more participation, will result in a better method to accurately identify unduplicated numbers of homeless.

O.C. Homeless Plan Still Lacks Specifics

The Orange County Board of Supervisors this week received the long-anticipated Final Plan to End Homelessness, a document that homeless advocates applauded, despite describing it as long on generalities and short on specifics.

More than four years after the George W. Bush administration officially made ending homelessness a national priority, the local plan is simply "overarching goals and strategies," said Kelly Lupro, manager of Homeless Prevention for the county’s Community Services Department.

For example, even though the plan’s conclusion states "Orange County has made a commitment to end homelessness over the course of the next decade," the county isn’t putting money behind the effort, other than a one-time $75,000 contribution toward the salary of Steve Kight, the project’s first executive director.

Furthermore, the county will not try to count all of the homeless people within its borders and is backing away from its previously stated goal to end homelessness by 2020. The former Commission to End Homelessness by 2020 now is just the Commission to End Homelessness.

The county is required to devise a plan for ending homelessness or risk losing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds that for Orange county totaled $111 million between 1996 and 2009.

Paul Leon, director of the Illumination Foundation, one of the county’s most high-profile nonprofits dedicated to homelessness issues, said until very recently the county’s plan was "just talk."

But starting last year, he said, he’s sensed "a little bit more momentum," including efforts to cooperate with cities.

"If we [charities and government] could work together, I could see something happening in the next three to four years," he said.

When asked about the plan submitted to the Board of Supervisors this week, Leon said there is "quite a bit of fluff in there." But he said he’s encouraged that the county is considering potential sites for a year-round shelter.

"At least they’re doing something," said Leon. "They’re trying to quantify the gravest needs. Yeah, it could have been done five years ago, but at least it’s happening."

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach said part of the delay came from the time it took to recruit an executive director. He said there also were legal issues to settle before enabling the OC Partnership to spearhead the effort.

Since Kight, who heads the OC Partnership, was named executive director in August, they’ve "been working like crazy," Moorlach said.

The commission recommended that year-round shelters be located at sites throughout the county and should include daytime services. To do that, Kight and the OC Partnership must win support of the communities where the shelters would be located and raise money to create them.

If the county creates year-round shelters, it also must provide services for individuals with mental health and addiction problems, the report said.

In order to supply those services, officials must know how many people need them. Getting an accurate count of homeless people is tough for any jurisdiction and, it seems, particularly tough for Orange County.

In January 2011, the county participated in the nationwide point-in-time count of homeless people. However, county officials took several months longer to release the information than their counterparts in other Southern California counties. And when officials did make the totals public, they were immediately challenged by local advocates.

The tally showed that even with the poor economy and high unemployment, Orange County homelessness dropped 16.73 percent between 2009 and 2011 to about 7,000. It was the largest decrease of any county in Southern California.

"It’s bullshit," Dwight Smith, director of the Catholic Worker shelter in Santa Ana, said at the time.

Orange County tries to count all of its homeless only every two years, the minimum required by HUD. This year, HUD began requiring an annual, one-night count of men, women and children housed in shelters. Orange County will conduct that count Jan. 27.

But most homeless people don’t live in shelters. They sleep on the streets, in parks, in cars or anywhere they can find a reasonably safe space. Even if the 2011 count is accurate, shelters reported caring for less than 40 percent of the total homeless people in Orange County. The rest presumably were on the street.

This week, other California counties, including San Diego and Ventura, are again doing their own street count. But Orange County is not.

When asked the reason, Moorlach said, "Just because Johnnie does it …"

Lupro said the county is moving toward an annual street count.

This year’s partial count comes when homelessness and one of its major causes, mental illness, have been in the spotlight for months.

Kelly Thomas, a homeless man suffering from severe schizophrenia, was beaten to death July 5 by Fullerton police officers. One officer involved in the beating is facing murder charges and another manslaughter charges.

This month, Iraq War veteran Itzcoatl "Izzy" Ocampo, 23, of Yorba Linda, was arrested on suspicion that he is the serial killer who stabbed to death four homeless men in North Orange County. Ocampo, whose father is homeless, reportedly suffers from psychological problems.

Brian Sullivan, spokesman for HUD, said learning how many people live on the streets and the reasons is critical to ending homelessness. Without knowing how many people lack a permanent place to live and what kinds of aid are needed, it’s impossible to marshal the right resources in a financially sensible way, he said.

Reducing homelessness and correcting its causes, he said, saves local, state and federal funds that are spent for emergency room care, jails, prisons and other services.

"You can’t solve homelessness without understanding it," said Sullivan.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

FIVE-YEAR LOOK BACKS

January 21

2002

It’s not too often that I disagree with the OC Register’s editorial staff, but on the recapture matter, I did.  So I submitted an editorial response, which was titled “Appeal in court only way to settle tax overcharge issue – Otherwise, all tax agencies under Prop. 13 will be kept in dark.”  It was the guest column in the Sunday Commentary section.

I agree with the Orange County Register on, what I affectionately call, the recent “Pool Case” decision affecting the calculation of real property taxes (“Tax ruling makes county course clear”).  Why shouldn’t I?  I share the Register’s libertarian bent.  But, the Register’s editorial staff may have rushed too quickly to its decision on the non-necessity of an appeal. 

As a steward of everyone’s hard earned tax dollars, I strongly believe the County should appeal Judge Watson’s decision for the sake of clarity and absolute resolution.

As an elected official I believe that there are three areas for me to concentrate on:

1.       Lower taxes.  If there is anyway to either avoid raising taxes or, better yet, to reduce them, then do it.

2.       Cut wasteful spending.  What better way to reduce the tax burden than to reduce unnecessary and wasteful spending?

3.       Be consistent.  This is a Certified Public Accountant’s credo.  Report your activities in a consistent manner.

In the “Pool Case,” Judge John Watson determined that a “recapture” of a county Assessor’s earlier unilateral, or successfully contested, reduction in a real property’s base for assessment purposes is not to exceed 2 percent per year.  That is, there will be no recapture. 

There is no “demon” here.  Our assessor has acted in a uniform manner with the rest of the state.  This method was also concurred with by the Howard Jarvis Association, which gave birth to Proposition 13 in 1978.  In fact, our current Assessor and his predecessor followed the spirit of Propositions 13 and 8 and unilaterally, in a pro-active manner, reduced assessed values of numerous property owners in the county.  This in spite of the fact that such actions are not mandated by Proposition 8.  In an overall review of this department, I believe our Assessor has gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Judge Watson’s decision would lower property taxes for those that received either a unilateral or successfully contested reduction in their real property’s base.  This could impact about half of our County’s property owners.  This may be great for these taxpayers, if Judge Watson is correct.

However, the overall fiscal impact may be devastating.  Published reports indicate that the refunds may be in the area of $285 million.  If the County’s share is only 7 percent, it will cost this cash-strapped municipality $20 million.  The rest will be borne by your cities, school districts, special districts, and the State of California. 

Two school districts in the County utilize “basic aid” and rely on real property taxes for their funding.  We may see Newport-Mesa and Laguna Beach Unified School Districts devastated by this financial catastrophe.  The bargaining agreements that these 2 districts have with their teachers requires lay-off notification for next year by March 15.  They must act very quickly in making significant financial decisions that will impact the lives of thousands of people. 

Judge Watson’s decision may also severely impact a number of newer cities, as they have not yet had time to build adequate reserves for emergencies.

It will also cost my department, the County Treasurer-Tax Collector, and the Auditor-Controller and Assessor departments some $5 million to accurately and promptly issue the refunds.  This brings the impact to the County to $25 million.

Now we have opportunists who may pursue “class action” lawsuits or “statewide ballot measures” for their own financial gain to make this apply to the entire county and state.  Accordingly, the 57 other counties can also anticipate similar lawsuits. 

Let’s assume for the moment that we have an opposing decision in another county.  Now we have inconsistent law, or a tiered taxing system.  Or let’s assume that a county appeals the decision in the Court of Appeals, or even the State Supreme Court, and wins.  Then our County’s abiding with Judge Watson’s decision will have cost more than $300 million in taxpayer dollars.  What are the chances of recouping these refunds?  Nil.  Now we have government waste on a grand scale.  And we know that Sacramento isn’t going to feel sorry for our decisions and provide funding.  The 1994 bankruptcy filing taught us that lesson.

This inconsistency and uncertainty needs to be resolved.  It is unfortunate that the Orange County Board of Supervisors did not take the initiative to lead in this regard at their meeting of January 8.  No wonder the Los Angeles Times reporter opened her article with the sentence “Orange County supervisors Tuesday ducked what could become a far-reaching legal battle by voting not to challenge a recent court ruling that found a key method for assessing property unconstitutional.” 

Although it is the Supervisors’ role to adjudicate financial responsibility for agencies within their jurisdiction, they relegated this duty to the elected assessor.  Filing for an appeal is not the assessor’s job.  His role is to assess.  The Board waived the right to appeal by their default. 

On the way to this decision the board implied that the assessor, and by inference myself and the auditor-controller, were crooks with the rationale that “because you’re a burglar and that’s how you support your family doesn’t make it lawful.”  Some support.

An appeal should settle this legal uncertainty once and for all.  That’s why the Supervisors were counseled to file for a writ with the Court of Appeals. 

It would make them statewide heroes, if Judge Watson’s decision was correct, to the impacted taxpayers.  Of course, if Orange County represents 9 percent of the state’s real property taxes, then there is another liability of more than $3 billion staring in the face of our fiscally challenged Governor.  If a tax hike is implemented as his response, then those who are not impacted by Judge Watson’s decision will be paying for it and many of those who are impacted may see a zero-net sum game.

Now the spotlight is on Orange County Assessor Webster Guillory.  Will he take into account the big picture?  Or will he only focus on March 5?  Now is a time to not reveal your insecurities.  Now is a time to lead and codify this decision so that it is administered consistently throughout the state without a significant waste of taxpayer dollars and local municipality disruption.

The Orange County Register should take a more global view and support an appeal. 

A strident libertarian “knee-jerk” would be destructive, when the Register’s overall goal should be that of a constructive statesman.

2007

Long-time Daily Pilot columnist Steve Smith made me the subject of his weekly submission in “On the Town:  Keen eyes supervise county money.”  For perspective, the County’s retirement system earned less than 1 percent on its assets last year.

During a recent interview with newly minted county Supervisor John Moorlach, a light bulb went off over my head, and I finally realized why, even with some disagreements on key issues, I appreciate his role in county government.

More than any public official with whom I have ever communicated, Moorlach has his eyes (not one, but two) on our money. Whether it’s investing to make more of it or finding and plugging the bottomless pits standard in bureaucracies, Moorlach is all over this money thing.

The reason for my call was to find out how Moorlach was adjusting to his new role. I started off the conversation by reminding him that not so long ago, if I called him late in the day at his office, he would answer the phone himself. Those days are over.

"The days blow by," Moorlach said. "My staff does a good job of prepping, but I am still a little anal on certain things."

Moorlach called it "anal," but with these left-brainers, it is more a matter of being detailed — of being interested in the things that are important but invisible to us.

One of Moorlach’s challenges is scheduling — of meeting the demands of all those who want a piece of him.

"Today, for example," he said, "I was invited to a dinner, but I looked at my schedule that week and found 35 hours of other events I had committed to, and I called back to say there’s no room."

I asked Moorlach how the county is doing.

"The biggest issue facing the county is our pension plan liability," he said. "The second is the retiree medical fund."

Minus all the administrative language that confuses things, the county has made promises that are costing us enough money to unions and retirees to be very concerned — again — about the county’s fiscal health.

For years no one disputed any of the additional benefits for, say, law enforcement because the idea was that nothing was too much for people who put their lives on the line for us.

Unfortunately, those who are pushing back on the questions he is raising have painted him as uncaring and unappreciative of their work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Moorlach only wants to know how much is enough: How much do we extend ourselves before we start to affect the county’s bond ratings and its ability to conduct all of its other business?

"The pension is the tail that wags the dog," said Moorlach. "We are keeping the wolf at bay by earning 13%, but that won’t last forever."

As a taxpayer, you should be very concerned. The county’s last fiscal year gave $225 million to pension spending, which was more than half of the increase from recent higher tax assessments.

As of August last year, the county owed about $3.7 billion to the pension and retiree medical funds. To give you some perspective, the county declared just $1.7 billion in debts when it filed for bankruptcy in 1994.

If there are some ruffled feathers along the way and some pushback, Moorlach can handle it. He knows that he volunteered for this job and approaches each day with progress in mind.

"I remember my mom telling me, ‘Don’t sit there — ask me what you can do next.’ But that’s how my mom raised me. So now, I figure out what I’m going to do first, second, third and fourth."

You should be satisfied that Moorlach is asking these tough questions — questions that are supposed to grow and protect the hard-earned money you generously give to the government each year.

And if anyone tells you he doesn’t care about people, you can respond as a taxpayer that he does.

The LA Times addressed another hiccup at the Orange County Transportation Authority in O.C. transit officials rethink contract for troubled Access paratransit program – Veolia Transportation has problems getting to riders on time and getting them to their destinations.”  The piece was by David Reyes and it concerned Veolia’s inability to meet its performance benchmarks.  Veolia had made an aggressive sales pitch to take the contract away from Laidlaw.   Here are the opening paragraphs plus one:

Dorothy Miller was getting blood drawn and a prescription filled when the white Access bus rolled up to Kaiser Permanente in Garden Grove to take her home.

Miller, 86, who doesn’t drive and uses a walker, is among thousands in Orange County who rely on the Access paratransit program, paying just $5 for round-trip transportation.

"The Access bus has been a blessing to me," she said after van driver Maria Moser helped her to her seat. "I use it to go shopping, exercise and the doctors."

But seven months after Oak Brook, Il.-based Veolia Transportation, one of the nation’s largest transportation companies, took over a $30-million-a-year contract to provide paratransit services in Orange County, Veolia is in trouble.

Drivers have been late with pickups and hazy on destinations, sometimes getting there an hour late or longer, prompting numerous complaints from disabled riders who have missed appointments or been left waiting at hospitals, medical centers and shopping plazas.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has fined Veolia $300,000 for failing to meet contract standards.

"The single biggest issue has been buses being excessively late, in addition to problems due to difficulties with scheduling the buses, and drivers having trouble getting to the pickup points," said Erin Rogers, OCTA manager of transportation services.

Supervisor John M.W. Moorlach, who is on the OCTA board, said the program needed evaluation and suggested the board might consider a hybrid program, such as also having a fleet of taxis and exploring the use of existing dispatch services for buses and taxis.

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