Desert Dwellers Want Their Place in the Sun--Named Mojave County

Times Staff Writer

On June 7, San Bernardino County voters will decide whether to establish the state's first new county in 80 years.

Backers of the county's controversial Measure A want to carve Mojave County out of San Bernardino County's vast desert area. They contend that the region is a distinct community that should govern its own affairs.

Opponents fear secession could result in financial disaster for the new county as well as the surviving portion of the old.

The proposed Mojave County would include 205,000 people and encompass 18,000 square miles of desert area from the Los Angeles and Kern County lines on the west to the Colorado River on the east.

San Bernardino County, the largest county in the United States outside of Alaska, would be left with 2,000 square miles and nearly 1 million people living mostly in cities, including Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario and San Bernardino.

With the election only a little more than a week away, representatives from both sides are predicting victory. "I am not so confident that I think we do not have a lot of work left to do," said Tom Pinard, leader of the Mojave County Proponents. "My gut feeling is that it will pass by 51% or something like that."

For the proposal to succeed, it must be approved by a majority of voters throughout San Bernardino County as well as by a majority within the boundaries of the proposed new county.

The Mojave County movement began in 1986 with 200 residents from the mountain community of Wrightwood and desert towns such as Victorville, Trona and Needles. Politically and philosophically conservative people, they had come to the desert seeking an independent, low-key life style and freedom from urban troubles and government regulation.

"We are a different breed of cat," Pinard said. "We do not have a common interest and bond with San Bernardino."

Instead, they found the area rapidly becoming urbanized as thousands of families moved over the San Bernardino Mountains, turning portions of the desert into seas of housing tracts and condominiums.

The secessionists believed that county services were not keeping pace with the changes. They blamed the county for badly maintained streets and sewers, poor police and fire protection, and crowded schools. Until it incorporated as a city in April, for example, Hesperia's 55,000 people were patrolled by a handful of sheriff's deputies.

A petition drive in 1986 collected 20,000 signatures and helped persuade Gov. George Deukmejian to appoint a commission, whose purpose was to determine if the new county's budget could support at least the same level of services currently provided by San Bernardino County.

The commission's report favored the new county, estimating that it would receive $137 million in taxes, fees, and state and federal funds. The county's expenses would be slightly less, leaving a surplus of $88,000.

By comparison, it said, the remaining area of San Bernardino County, with a budget of $829 million, would have a shortfall of $14.5 million the first year.

New county advocates believe continued growth will make up for the financial loss in succeeding years.

But opponents are worried that the shortfall would have to be made up with either decreased services or increased fees and assessments. They also predict that Mojave County would have financial problems and would not be able to provide adequate law enforcement.

Areas of Disagreement

In particular, they disagree with the commission's determination that the new county could offset any shortage of police staffing through contracts with other agencies. They also say the new county could not afford the capital expenses required to operate an effective Sheriff's Department.

They also argue that the desert region is no longer all that different from the remainder of the county.

John Husing, a spokesman for Save Our San Bernardino County, contends that the high desert has become part of a larger "community/labor area" that has grown beyond Los Angeles and Orange counties to include the Inland Empire and the high desert communities.

"Their contention is that they are a separate community so distinct that they should be a separate county--they are totally wrong," Husing said. "The new residents moving into the Victor Valley area are seeking affordable housing and commuting to jobs in the urban areas they came from."

Backs Incorporations

Husing said that while the desert region's infrastructure problems are real, communities there could more effectively deal with such local issues as road improvement and law enforcement by incorporating into cities.

"The new county proponents are trying to divide the county to take care of their problems," Husing said. "We regard this as a radical solution to a conventional problem with a conventional answer."

Other opponents, including the Fontana, Ontario and San Bernardino chambers of commerce, some San Bernardino County supervisors, the county Sheriff's Assn. and the Needles City Council, fear that the financial losses in the remaining area of San Bernardino County would result in a decline in basic services.

On another front, the Board of Supervisors has challenged the state commission's finding that the old county would owe Mojave County $11.8 million after dividing assets, such as county buildings and automobiles, and liabilities, which include bond obligations owed by taxpayers.

Deukmejian a Defendant

San Bernardino County Counsel Alan Marks argued in a lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court last month that audited financial statements showed that Mojave County would owe the old county $33 million. The lawsuit, which named Deukmejian as a defendant, also sought to postpone the election.

But Superior Court Judge James Milliken refused on grounds that his court lacked jurisdiction. Marks has appealed Milliken's ruling.

"The county's figures do not have merit," Pinard said. "The lawsuit is an underhanded and calculated dirty campaign trick."

The campaigns have generated intense interest throughout the county, although election officials are making no projections about turnout. It also is being watched carefully in Riverside County by residents of the Coachella Valley who have discussed the possibility of seceding.

The last county created in California was Imperial County, formed in 1907. In the last 15 years, seven efforts to create new counties have failed at elections, including one in 1982 in eastern Fresno County and another in 1984 in the Lake Tahoe region of eastern El Dorado County, according to the County Supervisors Assn. of California.

As the Mojave County election approaches, Pinard said that volunteers are stepping up speaking engagements and peppering desert highways and roads with signs that say: "Two New Counties Bring Government and Services Closer to the People."

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