Orange County Supervisor Bartlett Troubled by Economic Uncertainty

Orange County Supervisor Bartlett Troubled by Economic Uncertainty
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett listens during a board meeting in Santa Ana, Calif., on Aug. 25, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Reflecting on a difficult year, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett says a new set of challenges awaits after the clock strikes midnight New Year’s Day.

As the Southern California county grapples with a $200 million budget deficit, its board of supervisors is bracing for more financial hardship with the Dec. 31 expiration of the federal CARES Act. Exacerbating the issue is a lack of support for municipalities in the recently approved $900 billion federal stimulus package, she said.

“The basic stimulus package coming from the federal level doesn’t provide a lot of funding directly to local municipalities, meaning states and counties,” Bartlett told The Epoch Times.

“And I find that an extreme hardship financially and otherwise, because as of Dec. 31, the CARES Act funding and other funding sources are eliminated. They’re gone. And yet we still have to provide a lot of very significant high-dollar services to the public at large. And we don’t have any funding to backfill.”

During the early days of 2020, Bartlett was focused on helping Orange County’s homeless. Then a series of plot twists turned the year on its head. Now at the year’s conclusion, she reflects upon it as the most difficult one in her 14-year political career.

“It’s been a very challenging year,” she said. “[Early on], we took a nosedive right into a recession that is still continuing. Unemployment went from 2.9 percent in February, to almost 16 percent four months later. During that time as well, we were moving right into the COVID-19 pandemic ...

“It was sort of the perfect storm with a lot of things converging on it.”

Challenge of the Year

Bartlett said the most onerous of obstacles came with the shutdown of California’s economy. The first lockdown came in March, and the second in early December. The latter stay-at-home order is ongoing.

“I have friends that have had to shut their businesses, and some of those businesses simply are not going to be able to reopen,” she said. “It’s really sad. It’s been a huge impact from an economic perspective on many people’s lives in the county and that’s been really a hardship for all of us to see and to experience.”

Although Bartlett agrees with some aspects of the stay-at-home order—such as closing indoor gyms—she said dining restrictions have gone too far. She and other supervisors have been, unsuccessfully, lobbying the state to allow restaurant patios to remain open.

Lisa Bartlett, a county supervisor for Orange County, Calif. (Courtesy of Lisa Bartlett)
Lisa Bartlett, a county supervisor for Orange County, Calif. (Courtesy of Lisa Bartlett)

“I think for the most part, we’re all in agreement at this point that we should probably have the outdoor dining following health and safety protocols,” she said.

“The latest stay-at-home order is pushing individuals with multiple households to go and get takeout, and then go to somebody’s home and sit around the dinner table inside. Multiple households in a closed environment is not good for COVID-19. So, we’re pushing the state and hopefully they will acquiesce relative to the outdoor dining aspect.”

Money Problems

Despite receiving $554 million in federal CARES Act funding, the pandemic has taken a toll on the county’s budget, Bartlett said. To offset an estimated $200 million deficit, she said, it will pull money from reserves.

“We are dealing with very abnormal times in the budget,” she said. “We normally are able to have a balanced budget every single year.”

Every CARES Act dollar has been spent on pandemic-related expenses, such as personal protective equipment, safety net programs, and business grants, she said.

Without more federal help, Bartlett said she’s worried about the county’s ability to help its most vulnerable citizens through the pandemic.

“It does keep me awake at night,” she said.  “The last thing I want to hear about is somebody not being able to pay their rent and they’re getting evicted. These are some extremely challenging times financially for our residents in the county. I want to make sure every resident has a roof over their head.”

Mental Health Help

In January, the 58-bed Be Well Orange County campus will open, providing mental health support for residents. Its opening is a point of pride for Bartlett, who has spent years working on the initiative.

“To see four years of work come to fruition and open up this campus is really impactful,” she said. “It’s going to be open to everybody in the county and that’s going to go a long way to solving the issues that have been arising. Adults that are facing a crisis, they will have a place to go within our system.

“It’s a huge breakthrough; that’s a real bright spot for me because this is fulfilling a growing need in our county.”

‘Brighter Days’

While the pandemic presented the county with challenges, it also provided it with opportunities, said Bartlett.

She sees Project Roomkey as one of those opportunities.

Orange County participated in the state initiative that helped house hundreds of homeless people during the pandemic. Although the county exited the program in October, it is now focused on Project Homekey. In the latest initiative, the county is spending $23.1 million purchasing motels and turning them into housing for the homeless.

“That was one positive thing that will help us long term to get more supportive housing units quicker to help the homeless population,” Bartlett said.

As she looks forward to the New Year, she said she’s hopeful some hints of normalcy will appear as the vaccine becomes more readily available.

“I wish everyone would take a deep breath moving into 2021,” she said. “Hopefully we will have brighter days on the horizon.”

Michelle Thompson is an editor and reporter based in Orange County, California. Her award-winning work has appeared in numerous major Canadian daily newspapers, as well as multiple U.S. publications.