Cities Join Forces to Tackle Common Problems While Cutting Costs : Government: Coalition seeks to give communities more clout and access to funding.

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The borders marking city limits in Southeast Los Angeles County symbolize municipal pride, independence and a sense of friendly competition to residents. But some of those boundaries are beginning to blur as leaders of eight cities in the region increasingly cooperate to attack nagging social and economic problems.

The concept of regional collaboration--combining the resources of individual cities to address common concerns, cut costs and improve service to residents--has been proposed in the region for years, but little has come of it.

Now, inspired partly by the sluggish economy and years of budget cuts, the eight cities are seeking new joint methods to bring jobs, education, transportation and safety to the area's estimated 370,000 residents. Their efforts follow a national trend, experts say, and may be more comprehensive than most.

"(Regionalization) is the thing of the future," Huntington Park Councilman Raul Perez said. "It has to be. We have to pool our resources if we're going to survive."

That cooperative spirit has evolved out of the admission that although the cities may promote their individualism, their problems--and their futures--are inextricably linked.

More than 1,500 jobs have been lost in the last year as industry continues to trickle out of the region, analysts say. Most of the cities have adopted a utility-users tax to stabilize budgets rocked by the loss of state funding during recent budget cuts.

Compounding the problems are population density, below-average education levels--up to 70% of the adults in the area do not have high school diplomas--and high unemployment, which hovers around 10%, according to a report compiled by the office of Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Huntington Park).

Under Escutia's leadership, the cities formed the Southeast Community Development Corp. last spring. The coalition unites Bell, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood, South Gate and Vernon under a nonprofit umbrella, which leaders hope will give the area more clout with government agencies and funding sources that would not ordinarily fund city programs.

One of the corporation's first proposals is to create a trolley system using alternative-fuel vehicles to feed into the Blue Line and Metrolink systems. Under the $500,000 plan, individual cities would pool unused funds from the Air Quality Management District and apply to the AQMD for matching funds to pay for the project.

The AQMD collects money from motor vehicle registration fees and distributes a percentage to cities to be used for local transportation projects. Because each city's share is based on population, an individual municipality may not have enough money to fund its own project.

"Commerce (with about 12,000 residents) only gets $13,000 a year based on population," said Ira Gwin, the city's director of community development. "That's nothing. But if we can pool that together with other cities, that makes sense. That's what we want."

The corporation is also waiting to hear whether it will be designated a federal enterprise zone and has submitted an application to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for up to $1 million in tax credits for employers, said Dolores Sanchez, Escutia's spokeswoman.

The type of cooperation seen in Southeast Los Angeles County is part of a growing trend, said Jeff Fletcher, spokesman for the National League of Cities, an organization representing 1,450 cities.

"Most of the forward-looking communities realize that their future economic and social stability depends on the region as a whole," Fletcher said.

Another cooperative effort among seven Southeast cities began in October with an agreement to fund a satellite campus for East Los Angeles College in Huntington Park. The cities allocated $24,000 each to help set up the program. Had Huntington Park been asked to foot the $150,000 bill on its own, the project would have failed, officials have said.

In a separate venture also launched last year, Bell, Maywood, South Gate and Huntington Park formed the Metro Gang Task Force to track the dozens of gangs in the area, where 45% of all crime is believed to be gang-related.

Now, Perez, of Huntington Park, is proposing that five of the cities, which are served by 12 separate water districts, re-evaluate their programs with an eye toward combining water services.

Although the cities' many similarities have helped persuade leaders to collaborate, officials say that cooperation has its limits.

Maywood City Manager Ron Lindsey recalled how Maywood voters soundly rejected a 1976 ballot measure to merge their city with Bell and said residents are still skeptical when talk turns to regionalization.

"People are real protective of their small town and worry about (the town) losing (its) identity," Lindsey said.

Others worry that combining efforts could erode the personal service that smaller cities provide, Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo said.

Getting seven or eight political entities to agree on larger issues may require the same diplomacy it took to form the European Economic Community, quipped one city official.

But Escutia remains optimistic. "It requires a different mind-set," Escutia said of the regional approach. "You can't be parochial."

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