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“It’s my belief that it’s public money that will keep this organization going. Bren does not want to fund this any further,” says Theresa Sears, a Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks board member who has monitored privatization efforts on county and city lands. Under IRC’s Measure M proposal, “they’d get $2 million a year for 10 years.”
As for the habitat restoration, Sears stressed that the Measure M restoration funds are needed throughout the county. “For them to apply for these funds, no, that’s not right,” she says. “I think what needs to happen is, if you have a deficiency, then fix it before you turn over the land.”
The $20 million could come on top of other public outlays to the IRC. County parks commissioners who signed off on the land transfer in September say they would prefer to outsource management if the public assumes ownership. Commissioner Brian Probolsky says he didn’t want “ballooning union employee costs” as a result of having to manage an additional 20,000 acres.
O’Connell, who is currently paid $280,000 in salary and benefits by Bren, says none of the Measure M funding would be used to pay his salary or other administrative costs. Ditto for the annual$1.5 million county officials are considering paying IRC to continue guided tours, fire watch and other programs on the land, which have been funded by Bren.
But the costs of retaining the conservancy could be far higher than adding new public employees. O’Connell’s group already has lucrative contracts with the cities of Irvine and Newport Beach to manage land once owned by the company.
Records show Irvine paid less than $300,000 annually to city staff to manage open space before the conservancy took over. Now, taxpayers there are on the hook for $733,000 per year to IRC, plus costs for police security once provided by private Irvine Ranch patrols. O’Connell defended his organization’s work in Irvine, saying they had tripled guided tours, developed trails and done habitat restoration.
The final decision on the sales-tax allocations will be up to the OCTA board, which is largely made up of county supervisors and city officials.
Melanie Schlotterbeck, a consultant who represents a coalition of 30 Orange County environmental groups on the transportation agency’s environmental oversight committee, says she was surprised when O’Connell showed up with a lengthy application for so much money.
“We have not even asked for formal proposals yet. He was the only one who submitted one like this,” she says. While Schlotterbeck says she and other committee members are taking a wait-and-see attitude on all funding requests, she says she was concerned about the potential for politicization in awarding of the monies. An environmental consultant is currently conducting a review of the county’s biological needs to see which projects would be the best fit.
Some question why Measure M money is being used for restoration projects at all, as opposed to acquisition of more open space from struggling landowners who could use the cash. The fact that an arm of one of the nation’s wealthiest landowners could end up with millions adds to that frustration.
“They don’t need this; it’s like gravy for them,” says Sefton. “They should step aside and let others have it.”
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