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Cityhood May Be the Real Issue in Mission Viejo

Times Staff Writer

Mission Viejo residents vote Tuesday on the creation of a new governmental body that would take this unincorporated community of 60,000 a little further away from the county and a little closer to cityhood.

The body, called the Mission Viejo Community Services District, would take over the administration of landscaping, street and park maintenance, and lighting services, which up to now have been provided by the county.

Since a community services district provides some, though not all, of the services of a city, the districts are sometimes referred to as “junior cities,” and are often viewed as an intermediate step toward incorporation.

“It (a community services district) brings local fiscal control to the community,” said Craig S. Galbraith, professor of management at UC Irvine and one of 11 candidates vying for five spots on the proposed district’s board of directors.

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“It also represents a transition into cityhood,” he said. “That’s where I see it going. Given the culture of this community, how close-knit it is, we’ll probably move to cityhood within five or 10 years.”

But several other candidates, some of whom are members of Mission Viejo’s Municipal Advisory Council, are trying to keep cityhood--and the accompanying specter of higher taxes and more bureaucracy--out of the community services district debate.

“I don’t want people to think that by voting for a (community services district) they’re voting for incorporation--they’re not,” said Norman P. Murray, a semi-retired businessman who serves as chairman of the Municipal Advisory Council’s budget and finance committee. “It (an incorporation effort) would have to start from scratch, with new feasibility studies and boundary hearings--it would take two years at least.

“The (Municipal Advisory Council) will continue to study cityhood, to see if it’s a go or no-go. In the meantime, we have this new little community district to take care of these services. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk. I don’t think the community would accept incorporation yet.”

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‘Providing Same Services’

Another candidate, Deputy Atty. Gen. Robert David Breton, agreed with Murray that incorporation and the formation of a community services district are separate issues. “We will simply be providing the same services now being rendered by the county,” he said. “Any enlargement of the scope of this body’s powers would have to be submitted to the voters.”

Also running for the community services district board are William Bringham, a retired military officer; Nellie Buomberger, an executive secretary; William Craycraft, a businessman; Denis Horn, an airport executive; Victoria Jaffe, a planning and business administrator; Fred L. McGuire, a business administrator, and Timothy E. Watson, a savings institution executive.

The proposed community services district could not provide any new services, nor could it raise property taxes without the approval of Mission Viejo residents. It could, however, shift funds from one sector of the budget to another--from lighting to park development, for example--something that county accounting will not permit.

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And even though the community services district would not bring cityhood, it would provide “a breeding ground for leadership, should the community decide to incorporate in the future,” Breton said. “But the whole issue of whether this is a step toward cityhood is something that is very premature, and it serves more to cloud the true purpose of the (community services district).”

Keep Funds in Community

That purpose, Breton and Murray said, is to keep about $1.7 million in property taxes within the community and thereby maintain services at their current levels, without imposing the additional fees--called benefit assessments--that the county has said it will charge if the community services district is not formed.

Last February, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to stop providing special district augmentation funds--a post-Proposition 13 pool of property tax revenues used to balance countywide and local service area budgets--for services that did not benefit the entire county.

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The funds no longer can be spent, for example, to manicure a baseball diamond in Laguna Niguel or a meridian in Mission Viejo. They are now earmarked for countywide services, such as fire and flood control, libraries, and harbors and beaches.

For Mission Viejo, the supervisors’ decision translated into a potential loss of about $1.7 million that the community was paying into the augmentation fund and getting back in services.

Faced Tax Hike

Without that money, Mission Viejo might have had to cut services to keep in line with the $1.4 million in property taxes it would still receive. Or, if residents wanted to preserve the same level of services, they might have to accept a $60 to $80 benefit assessment the county has said it will levy on each household.

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But the third option, which the Municipal Advisory Council adopted and which is now on the ballot, was for Mission Viejo--or “County Service Area 9,” as it has been called--to transform itself into a self-governed community services district. As a community services district, Mission Viejo would not pay taxes into the augmentation fund. Rather, the 5.8% of its property tax bill now earmarked for the fund would stay within the community.

“The bottom-line economics are that if they (Mission Viejo residents) remain a (county service area), they would have a budgetary deficit of $1.5 million,” said Bob Hamilton, special districts administrator for the county’s Environmental Management Agency. “If a (community services district) is formed, (it) would be projected to have a $200,000 to $300,000 yearly surplus in financing those same services.”

However, not all Mission Viejo residents welcome the advent of greater home rule.

“They (the Municipal Advisory Council) kept telling us we would face a $62-a-year fee (without the community services district),” said Nadine Secarea, a UC Irvine management student who, with her husband, has led the unofficial opposition to the ballot measure.

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“That’s about $5 a month,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of poverty-stricken people here--that’s not a lot of money for most people in Mission Viejo, and it would buy us a whole heck of a lot.”

The Secareas maintain that the county has done a good job of providing services and is a known entity. The new community services district, they say, will have to pay high insurance premiums, if it can obtain insurance at all, and will have a very small financial cushion in the event of unforeseen circumstances.

“Marry at haste, repent at leisure,” Nadine Secarea said. “You don’t make a decision that’s going to change the face of the community by the seat of your pants. The (Municipal Advisory Council) will still be in place, the (community services district) will have a board of five, plus a manager, and the Board of Supervisors. . . . That’s a lot of government for a community of 60,000 people.”

Less Bureaucracy Claimed

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Proponents, however, say the community services district will reduce, rather than increase, the bureaucratic hassles that Mission Viejo residents must put up with if they wish to clean up a park slope or repair a public sprinkler.

“People see us in church or at the supermarket,” candidate Christian Keena, an attorney and Municipal Advisory Council member, said at a recent forum on the community services district measure. “We’re going to be a lot more responsive than five people who don’t even live in the Saddleback Valley.”

And, Keena added, since they would face the wrath of their neighbors, community services district directors would be a lot less likely to levy benefit assessments--as tax hikes are now called--than the far-removed Board of Supervisors. Keena made it clear, however, that if benefit assessments became necessary to balance the community services district’s budget, the directors would not hesitate to levy them.

“The county will levy them next year for sure, though, if we don’t form the (community services district),” he said.

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That logic made sense to Bob Hebets, a 16-year resident of Mission Viejo who attended the recent forum. “I’d much rather come in here and bitch about the budget than go up to Santa Ana,” he said.

Range Called Reasonable

As for the liability insurance problem, community services district supporters say they have received “five-figure” estimates, and county officials said that range appears to be reasonable.

“The problems of cities (in obtaining liability insurance) have been publicized, but in the case of the Mission Viejo (community services district), it’s more comparable to a large homeowners association,” the Environmental Management Agency’s Hamilton said.

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“Your high liability exposure areas are police and fire, and traffic safety,” he said, adding that the responsibility for those services would remain with the county.


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