ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Tough Decisions in Tough Times
The 1980s were a period of rapid incorporation of cities in Orange County, where new municipalities were fueled by the heady promise of local control and buoyant local tax bases. The 1990s have proved to be something else again.
In these new times of budget crisis, the decisions to go it alone have put residents in the position of having to decide whether to dig deep for their own services or to make the best of what they have. The debate over a library for Mission Viejo is a case in point.
The Orange County library within the city’s borders is too small for the population it serves, but finding money for a new building has been a problem. The answer is not, as some Mission Viejo officials seem to think, picking the pockets of a financially strapped county.
When Mission Viejo rode the wave of incorporations in Orange County in the 1980s like so many others, the future seemed bright. Continuing development and ever-increasing home prices meant new residents and more revenues to pay for police, fire and other services. Newly incorporated cities received sales tax revenues from malls and flourishing businesses. The loser was the Orange County government, which saw its tax base eroded at the same time it was required to keep administering state programs for health and welfare.
As recently as 1991, Mission Viejo had $20 million in reserves, seemingly plenty of money for a host of community projects. But after several years of recession, the possibility of a deficit looms.
To its credit, the city did pay $2.5 million for land for a new library. The current building was built in 1972, when Mission Viejo had 15,000 residents. Today it has 82,000, and the building falls well short of state and county standards for library size.
Mission Viejo voters were given the chance to pass a $5-million bond issue, which we supported, in 1992. It would have financed building a library on land the city had bought. But only 56% of the voters said yes. That was short of the constitutionally required two-thirds margin, admittedly an awfully tough standard to meet. It might be wise to bring local bond issue measures in line with the state, which requires a simple majority vote.
Some city officials have claimed that Orange County should have spent some of the special district money it collected from Mission Viejo and other communities for a library in the city. That is unrealistic. With Sacramento diverting funds from counties so the state could balance its own books, Orange County was forced to plug holes in its budget in recent years. The special district funds went for county fire services, with supervisors correctly believing that while it would be nice to have both, in a fiscal crunch, taxpayers cared more about public safety than libraries.
Mission Viejo is now considering leaving the county library system and running a municipal library itself. That’s worth studying. City officials have received a consultant’s report but need more research on operating costs and tax revenues. Tough economic times require tough decisions, and city residents must decide what services they are willing to finance.