Bankruptcy? What Bankruptcy?!

OCs financial meltdown, five years later

There's ample incentive to cheat, in other words, which is why the district's critics are so prickly. On July 27, for instance, Sanitation District officials found high bacteria levels at one stretch of Huntington Beach—but failed to report the test findings to Environmental Health. That allowed the dirty beach to stay open until the district reported the results on Aug. 2. By then, daily testing and reports showed that levels of enterococci bacteria had returned to normal. Critics charged the district didn't announce the findings because they could have interfered with the U.S. Open and Gotcha Pro, then under way a few hundred feet up the beach. A district spokesperson said the job of notifying Environmental Health officials may have fallen through the cracks.

Has it occurred to anyone, the Weekly asked Tim Korman of Environmental Health, that the county should test all beaches on the coast itself to make double sure water-quality findings are accurate?

"Oh, we used to," said Korman (also not his real name), "before the bankruptcy."

Please Do Not Care

for the Poor People

In March, two infants died after receiving injections from unlicensed pharmacies. These "clinics" exist behind toy stores and gift shops throughout OC's poorer cities, patronized primarily by Latino families who lack access to licensed clinics.

At the same time, more than 70 clinicians at the county's Children and Youth Services division stand ready to mutiny against what they consider a dictatorial, penny-pinching work environment. Staff morale at the agency, which is responsible for treating the county's abused and neglected children, is at an all-time low.

These may be the most visible—and dangerous—legacies of the county's 1994 bankruptcy. Nor are they surprising: health-care spending has always been low in a county known throughout the world for its well-to-do citizenry; in California, the county has ranked among the lowest in per capita health-care spending. Officials closed two community clinics, leaving the county with 19 to serve 2.7 million residents. Perhaps to compensate, officials scissored 9,000 indigent residents from medical-assistance programs. There's still no county hospital (that was sold to a private firm in 1976), and following the bankruptcy, there's not likely to be one any time soon. County residents without health insurance now number 425,000, including 12 percent of all senior citizens. The number of children living in poverty has risen to 150,000, according to the latest available numbers.

Meanwhile, the Health Care Agency shrivels. Barely surviving before the bankruptcy on a meager $43 million per year, the agency took an outright 30 percent budget cut after the collapse, losing $12 million in annual funding along with nearly 300 jobs. Total cost to county health programs since the bankruptcy: $53 million.

The cuts were surgically precise, eliminating a $600,000 mental-health program that treated 2,000 homeless people every year. Gone, too, was a vocational-training program for the mentally ill, which cost $400,000 per year. County officials showed the door to many Spanish translators at the agency, increasing the work burden on health-care staff, who have to deal with a growing Latino population.

Today, the agency's annual budget is $32 million. There are few suicide-prevention services. Many elderly patients don't have transportation to and from clinics—which, in Dickensian fashion, helps reduce demand at those clinics. A third of the county's residents lack access to basic dental care. And a coalition of volunteer health-care professionals is trying desperately to guide residents to honest, effective medical treatment.

For a while, there was hope that manna might fall from heaven, in the form of $30 million per year from the government's tobacco-industry settlement. Such talk has been dismissed as fantasy; the only legitimate use of the funds, county experts say, is to "defease debt." Translation: even money intended for health care will be used to pay off the 1994 debt so life can go on as usual.

Big Business As Usual

The bankruptcy had no effect on the county supervisors' need to satisfy the massive infrastructure needs of the men and women who keep them in office: the county's formidable land developers. All three South County toll roads are proceeding nicely, underused and over-budget. The latest Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) figures indicate bonds make up 86 percent of the roads' budget—making the roads potentially the next great bankruptcy disaster in the county. In fact, displaying their inimitable talent for numbers, TCA officials recently refinanced $1.5 billion in toll-road bonds into $1.75 billion in bonds. Now county drivers will have to wait until 2040 to ride the roads for free—assuming the agencies can make the bond payments, which gradually increase as time goes by.

The proposed El Toro International Airport is even worse. Unlike the toll roads, which may someday revert to freeways, the airport will never revert to anything other than a loud, polluting eyesore sucking the life out of the cities and communities surrounding it. So far, the county has already sucked more than $50 million from John Wayne Airport funds for the El Toro planning process. The county likes to say these funds are for airport use only—and that means any airport—but they're missing the point: once built, the airport becomes a county possession. If it fails to make money—as the current low demand numbers indicate—county taxpayers will have to keep it in the air.

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