Orange County, like US, faces a new era

From Bob Shelton's seventh-floor corner office at the Irvine Company, you can watch the sun set over most of the nice things money can buy. As it drops behind Catalina Island, it shoots back across the Pacific an orange swath that skips over the low, tightly packed houses and sleek, white pleasure boats of Newport Harbor.

To talk of discontent here may be to exaggerate from the start. For decades, this area has been the end of the rainbow for Americans migrating West in search of a better life. It provided a launching pad for Ronald Reagan, whose political career started here with a burst of grass-roots support that carried him to the governor's chair in 1966.

So researchers were surprised with the results of the first Orange County Annual Survey, sponsored by the University of California's Irvine campus.

In this young, economically robust county, which has grown by half a million in the last decade, the poll revealed a certain sourness in the way people here view their own communities.

A high number are dissatisfied with the quality of life in Orange County, and they have little confidence in local government and schools.

''My judgment is that there are some red flags, and that they're fairly serious,'' says noted social analyst Daniel Yankelovich, who was recently here reviewing the survey.

''I think it's a very good picture of a community in transition,'' he adds. As government budgets shrink in a era of fiscal austerity, the old methods for dealing with community problems are coming apart, he explains, and new ones have yet to take their place.

Since this is a scenario Mr. Yankelovich expects to see played out around the country, he suggests that a conservative county like this one could be taking the lead in showing the country how self-help and the private sector can help share the leadership with government.

Orange County may do that. Bob Shelton, senior vice-president for government relations at the Irvine Company, a development firm, recalls that in the 1950s there would be debates over whether a developer building a tract would even pay for sidewalks or underground utilities.

Now the Irvine Company not only pays for streets and parks in the neighborhoods it constructs, but is paying for $10 million worth of freeway ramps. It also recently underwrote summer school when the local school district couldn't afford it.

Cities always have a ''want list,'' and a smaller ''need list,'' Mr. Shelton explains. ''In the situation we're dealing with today, we'll see more and more of the private sector providing parts of that need list.''

Some are skeptical that this idea has actually caught on. ''I tend to be a cynic,'' says Earl Timmons, an opinion research consultant in the county. ''I don't see any new coalitions being formed.''

Even if new coalitions are being formed, they must work fast. The property-tax slashing Proposition 13, passed in 1978, is finally slamming down on the state treasury with a vengeance. Up to this point, state funds have been used to bail out cities and counties. But now they are losing their chief benefactor, and so are the public schools.

But what the public expects from the schools grows as funds wither, says Irvine Unified superintendent Stan Cory. ''Unless something gives, it will break our back.''

And business can't make up the difference, he adds. His district has recently garnered a $35,000 grant from the Bank of America and 20 computer units from Digital Equipment.It gets small gifts from the Irvine Education Foundation, a community group formed to help pay for public schools.

''But let's face it,'' he says, with a $44 million annual budget and 16,000 students, ''you cannot run that kind of an enterprise on voluntarism.''

The Orange County survey indicates that people here aren't getting what they want from their schools and local governments.

True, says Ray Watson, president of Newport Development Company. ''They'd like government to make the community safe, and they don't feel safe. They'd like government to solve the traffic problem, without spending money or building freeways.'' The trouble, he says, is that expectations for better living conditions have outrun the communities' ability to meet them.

''To the extent that people feel their life style is deteriorating because it's taking longer to get to work, the air is a little dirtier, they often blame the government,'' Mr. Shelton explains. ''It's the easiest target.''

County Supervisor Bruce Nestande finds something healthy in the discontent here. ''Today's policymakers have problems that those of 5, 10, 15 years ago didn't face,'' he says. ''As quality of life increases, people are more concerned with aesthetics.

''In the '20s, if you had a noisy trolley car or a dirty smokestack, nobody said anything.'' Now they expect much more from their environment, and that's how it should be, Mr. Nestande says.

What discourages Nestande is that public involvement in civic affairs usually comes in short bursts of reaction. ''I'm going to a public forum tonight, and there will probably be two-thirds fewer people than last year.'' Last year was the peak of an airport expansion controversy.

''There is a great feeling among the citizens here that they can have an effect,'' Ray Watson notes. He says that's largely because the county is parceled into 26 fairly small, decentralized cities.

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