Local Government Fit for Scrapheap, UCI Dean Says


It now takes 55 government agencies and private water companies to distribute Orange County's water supply.

Is that efficient government?

Throughout the state, there are 72 recreation and park districts--more than the 58 California counties--working every day to maintain the "quality of community life" for 8 million Californians.

Does that mean that more government is better?

And by the way, who needs county government?

Those were some of the questions raised Tuesday before the state Senate Committee on Local Government, which is exploring ways to restructure government. The findings from the session held in the Santa Ana City Council chambers, as well as others to be held in Sacramento, are expected to form the basis for new legislation on how to make local government more efficient.

There were no easy answers Tuesday, but government officials who testified seemed to reach the same conclusion: Taxpayers are angry and cynical and are demanding accountability and cost-efficiency.

One controversial suggestion came from Dennis Aigner, dean of the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine, who ruffled a few feathers when he suggested to the state panel that bureaucracy can become more efficient if the county boards of supervisors are eliminated.

Leading the committee hearing was state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who has announced her intention to run for the Board of Supervisors seat being vacated by Supervisor Thomas F. Riley.

Aigner argued that "urban county governments are passe." In Orange County, he said, the supervisors control only about 10% of their annual budget because the state has continued to erode the county government's functions.

The county's land-use authority also is being eaten up by new cities that incorporated in recent years, Aigner said.

From a political standpoint, he added, the county is no longer the "tower of power." That is demonstrated in recent months, he said, by its inability to manage the ongoing debate between North and South County cities over who will control the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station when it closes in four to six years.

"What needs to be done can probably be done better and cheaper with special purpose governmental units (such as transportation and air quality agencies) that bind cities together to get a particular job accomplished and then go away," Aigner said.

Aigner's comments "actually stimulated a lot of debate," but wiping out county government isn't even on the table for discussion, Bergeson said at the end of the daylong hearing.

"I don't think there's any argument that the role of the county is changing," Bergeson said. "That's what needs to be examined: how these countywide services are going to be better delivered."

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Harriett M. Wieder--who also testified Tuesday--said it was "too premature (for Aigner) to be making such extreme statements" since the reason for the discussion was to find out which services are being duplicated by various layers of government.

Wieder and other county officials recommended that the state inventory all funding sources, find out how that money is spent, and come up with a fair formula to distribute the funds to the counties so residents can see "what they are getting for what they are paying."

"The present system of government in California is dysfunctional and it shows," Wieder testified, "and all levels of government are having trouble continuing business as usual with the scarce fiscal resources available to them."

Other local officials also restated what has become longstanding complaints: that state government not impose new regulations without the money to carry out the laws, and that the state think about local governments' needs before raiding their scarce tax revenues.

"Every year there's this deal where you don't know (how much state revenue) you are going to get," Costa Mesa Mayor Sandra L. Genis said after presenting her testimony. "You are trying to do your (city) budget in the dark."

Fearing they may be targets for elimination or consolidation, representatives of special purpose districts--such as recreation and parks, water, cemetery and vector control--stood before the panel to defend their existence, list their accomplishments, note their efficiency and plead for more funding sources.

"The 50 districts in the California Mosquito and Vector Control Assn. cover 55,000 square miles, protect over 23 million people at the cost of $2 each, or less than a can of Raid," boasted Gilbert L. Challet, manager of the Orange County Vector Control District.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World