REGIONAL REPORT : El Toro, Laguna Hills to Vote on Cityhood as Trend Grows Statewide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Residents of the south Orange County bedroom communities of El Toro and Laguna Hills are expected to vote overwhelmingly Tuesday to join the rush toward cityhood, draining even more tax dollars from the county's strained budget.

The passage of cityhood referendums in the two cities that straddle the San Diego Freeway south of Irvine appears a certainty, with polls showing strong support for municipal self-rule.

El Toro, with 58,000 residents, and Laguna Hills, an upscale residential community of 23,000 built around a mall, would become the fourth and fifth cities in the rapidly growing south county area to break away from county government control since 1987.

The secessionist bids are among more than a dozen incorporation efforts from Santa Barbara to San Diego counties. The efforts are in various stages--ranging from early rumblings by the citizens of Oak Park in Ventura County to efforts by would-be communities such as Jurupa and Miraloma in Riverside County, which come up for hearings before their Local Agency Formation Commissions March 28.

In Los Angeles County, a cityhood vote for Calabasas in the San Fernando Valley is set for Tuesday.

All are hoping for the same results as Malibu, which is to officially become incorporated as the 87th city in Los Angeles County on March 28. The incorporation follows what is perhaps the most publicized and contentious incorporation bid in recent years.

Orange County officials are hoping for an entirely different result in their two communities.

The county is facing a $13-million budget deficit this year as part of a fiscal crisis that is expected to worsen as it begins to feel the effects of state budget cuts. County officials oppose creation of the two cities because they would further drain dwindling revenues.

If the two Orange County incorporations are approved, studies show that the county would suffer an annual loss of $7.7 million in property and sales tax revenues, as well as a smattering of other fees that would revert to the new cities. That total is in addition to $10 million in yearly revenue lost from the recent incorporations of Dana Point, Laguna Niguel and Mission Viejo.

County officials were particularly piqued by the Laguna Hills proposal because the Laguna Hills Mall and other businesses located inside the proposed five-square-mile city make up more than one-fourth of the county's sales tax revenues in unincorporated areas.

Jim Colangelo, executive director of the Orange County LAFCO, said the two drives mark the first time that the county has opposed incorporation efforts.

"With previous efforts, the county took a more neutral stance," Colangelo said. "But now, they've had a chance to see how the other incorporations have negatively affected their fiscal picture. It brought the issue home to them."

Supervisor Don R. Roth, a former Anaheim mayor, said the one-two punch of a $20-million funding cut from the state plus the lost revenue from the incorporations would be too much for the county to bear.

"Under normal conditions I would have endorsed letting them go out and do their own thing," said Roth. "But this is not normal times when we are on the brink of financial disaster."

Prohibited by law from blocking the elections, the Board of Supervisors vowed last December to ask state legislators for authority to refuse future incorporation proposals.

So, after a three-year struggle and failed attempts at cityhood, residents in both areas feel this is their last, best chance to set up their own governments and control their destinies.

The latest cityhood proposals are expected to pass in both communities but proponents are taking nothing for granted.

"I believe the county will be making it even tougher for cities to incorporate," said Ellen Martin, chairwoman of Citizens to Save Laguna Hills. "We are not going to get another chance at this."

Cityhood campaigners argue that for years their tax dollars have gone elsewhere in the county.

As the growth and demand for services in their neighborhoods mushroomed, they say, the county was unable to keep up because of its worsening budget problems.

Traffic lights, parks and athletic fields are mentioned as some of the needs in both communities.

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