NEWS ANALYSIS : Cities Yearn to Be Free, and County Paying Price


When officials moved last month to slow the rush toward cityhood of two South County communities, they patched a hole in county government's listing ship of state, but they didn't fix it permanently.

For each time residents of unincorporated Orange County band together and successfully start a new city, it comes with a hefty price tag for county government. Not only does it highlight and fuel disenchantment with county leadership in Santa Ana, but also means a loss of tax dollars and development fees that would otherwise go for county programs.

For the county, that's bad news. The cityhood movement is steadily draining county coffers of revenue at a time when the county's $476-million operating budget is facing a $41.5-million shortfall.

The lost money--more than $13 million this year as a result of recent cityhood victories for Mission Viejo, Dana Point and Laguna Niguel--was what prompted the Local Agency Formation Commission on June 20 to hold off approval of cityhood referendums in the El Toro and Laguna Hills areas of South County. The commission, a state-chartered agency made up of local representatives, wants more information on the impact of the proposed new cities before approving any more.

But cajoling, conferring and delaying so far have done little to dissuade an independence-minded populace, and in some cases they have served merely to annoy cityhood backers.

"We are so angry and frustrated," said Helen Wilson, the head of a movement to form a city out of the communities of El Toro, Lake Forest and Portola Hills. "We want to let them (county officials) know that we are not going to give up, and we are not going away."

For the county, the lost money would be enough to agitate leaders under any circumstances. But even more alarming for some is the blunt signal that the movements send about how constituents view their county government. Big, bloated, impersonal, unresponsive and pro-development are just a few of the pejoratives that the county comes in for in some quarters.

The county is too big, too complicated and too diverse to expect five elected county supervisors and the county staff to solve major countywide problems and address local concerns as well, say cityhood advocates.

"You have one person who is a supervisor who may or may not live in your community," said Dana Point Councilman Mike Eggers, a leading backer of Dana Point's 1989 incorporation. "He makes all the decisions for you. As fast as this county is growing, I think it's too much for one office or one individual."

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, while denying that his job is too much for one person, concedes that citizens send a message when they say they want more local government than they are getting from the county.

"When these people say that their motivation is local control, that's a polite way of saying they're not satisfied with us," Riley said. "I don't think there's any way around that."

Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, who has asked for a six-month study on county-city contracts that could drastically affect future incorporations by raising the price of county services, takes a softer line. While not denying that there could be an element of county-bashing, he argues that incorporations are a natural process, part of a community's maturation.

"I don't necessarily perceive it as a commentary on the county," he said. "It's a matter of communities getting to the point where they have the opportunity to express their self-determination."

When county leaders talk about the price of cityhood, though, inevitably conversation returns to cost-effectiveness. What communities often misunderstand, many county officials say, is that independence from the county is often more symbolic than real.

Along with the tax revenue that cities get once they set up shop comes the obligation to provide an expensive set of services. That means inheriting huge financial commitments, especially for cities that want their own police or fire departments.

For all recently incorporated Orange County areas, the solution to the problem has been the same: The newly formed cities, once freed of the county's oversight, quickly turn around and contract for their major services through the same government from which they just broke free.

As a result, the same county Sheriff's Department responds to break-ins, the same firefighters extinguish blazes and, in some cases, the same bureaucrats administer planning operations. In the meantime, because establishing a city means adding another layer of local government, taxpayers generally end up paying another level of administrators and elected officials.

The budgets balance as required by law, and local leaders replace county officials in setting the priorities, but in many cases, life goes on pretty much as usual. By the time they incorporate, some of the young cities are almost entirely built out, so there's not even much land-use control that passes over to the new governments.

"It does make you wonder whether they're getting anything," Sandy Sutphen, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton, said of cityhood advocates. "The community people feel better about it, but there may not be any real evidence that they're getting their money's worth."

But the drive for cityhood presses ahead, largely because motives for incorporation are much less tangible than money. They involve pride, control and access, all of which seem more readily found in a small local government than in a big, diffuse one.

Experts say that less pure impulses also can intervene, even if they are not stated openly.

Preserving a community's economic--and by extension, racial--makeup sometimes lurks in the background of cityhood campaigns, they say. Under buzzwords such as "community preservation," local activists sometimes advocate incorporation so that they will be able to control an area's zoning and use it to block certain kinds of low-income development--apartments, for instance, say experts.

"I think there is a racial issue in some cases, even if it's not stated," said Alan Saltzstein, chairman of the Cal State Fullerton political science department. "You may not be able to control the class of people that move into your neighborhood, but you can certainly influence it once you're a city."

Cityhood backers strongly reject the suggestion that racism or class preservation undergirds their efforts. But even they concede that cityhood sometimes involves a sort of circling of the wagons.

Norman Murray, a Mission Viejo city councilman who helped push that city's successful incorporation drive in 1988, said racial and demographic issues never entered into the debate.

He added, however: "I can't argue with the fact that there was a sense of provincialism in that we'd worked hard to build what we've got, and now we wanted to preserve it."

Despite the county's recent efforts, that bug will inevitably grip new areas. As the growing developments of South County coalesce into fully grown communities, officials are ready for more cityhood campaigns to clamor for recognition. Coto de Caza, Aliso Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita are all likely candidates once El Toro and Laguna Hills have taken their shot.

Elsewhere, North Tustin residents have recently begun exploring cityhood, a movement sparked when county supervisors voted to abolish that community's municipal advisory council.

The county, predictably, will likely balk at those and other cityhood efforts yet to be imagined. But residents will persist, and conflicts will stretch well into the coming decade as the county fights for the last scraps of its dwindling tax base.

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