For Better or Worse, Mission Viejo Is Leading a City's Life

Times Staff Writer

In the campaign to create the city of Mission Viejo, proponents argued that the new municipality would mean better local control, while opponents warned of a needless bureaucracy.

Last week, the city of Mission Viejo turned six months old, and both sides claimed that they were right.

Said Nadine Secarea, co-chair of the No City Committee, which unsuccessfully tried to quash the cityhood measure on last November's ballot: "I don't think I've seen anything beneficial from this city. We now have a City Hall bureaucracy to support and it seems to be growing."

Countered William O. Talley, Mission Viejo's acting city manager and a proponent of incorporation: "I think the transition has gone remarkably smooth and easy."

Whatever the viewpoint, there is no dispute that life in Mission Viejo has not been the same since local voters decided by a margin of 57% to 43% to become Orange County's 27th city.

Since the incorporation took effect March 31, the city of 67,310 residents has:

* Created a full-time staff of 18, after having begun existence with only two full-timers. The hires have include a city clerk, a city attorney, a public works director, a planning director and a finance director.

* Arranged for intensified police and fire protection through contracts with the county Sheriff's and Fire departments.

* Created a city hall on the first floor of a leased office building.

Talley said the key to the city's smooth transition has been its hiring of department heads.

"As each one was hired, you could see it get smoother around here," Talley said.

But Secarea said the city has been plagued with controversies almost from the outset, not the least of which has involved its stormy relationship with the Orange County government officials who used to run the community.

The city and county have been quarreling over, among other things, disbursement of property taxes, ownership of cable television revenues and a proposed surcharge for county animal control services.

The county's Local Agency Formation Commission added fuel to the fire recently when it voted to reduce Mission Viejo's sphere of influence for annexation purposes to zero.

Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, whose district encompasses Mission Viejo, was not available for comment on the controversy. An aide, Joan Gladstone, said Vasquez had directed that none of his aides be quoted on district matters.

Talley said that one of the first problems with the county entailed transfer of property taxes from county control to city control. Although these funds are supposed to be turned over to a new city, Talley said, "in some cases the county didn't keep track of the revenues or withheld them." Property taxes bring in about $30,000 a month in Mission Viejo, he said.

Another tiff developed when the county attempted to withhold cable television revenues from the city, Talley said. Both the county and city told Dimension Cable Co., which provides service in Mission Viejo, to send them a $50,000 check. The city finally convinced the cable company to send it the check, Talley said.

Yet another dispute flared up a few weeks ago when the county told city officials they would have to pay an $80,000 surcharge to receive the same animal control service that the county provides free to 17 other cities, Talley said. County officials said they were tacking on the surcharge to all new cities.

Talley said the City Council will take up the animal control issue at its Oct. 10 meeting and, likely, would grudgingly vote to accept the terms of the contract. Talley explained that it would be too costly for the city to provide animal control protection on its own.

In July, the city locked horns with a psychiatric-care hospital that wanted to build in the city.

The Charter Medical Corp. request for an 80-bed facility was first approved by a county planning agency, but then opposed by a city advisory committee and city staff. The proposal was finally approved by the City Council after a marathon public hearing.

Not surprisingly, Talley envisions a rosy future for the city but Secarea sees a dark one--filled with higher taxes.

Talley said the city, for now, is in good financial shape and should end the year with a $9-million surplus over its $22-million annual budget. Secarea maintains that the city will have to raise taxes in the future because of what she called a weak tax base that is overly dependent on Mission Viejo Mall.

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