Cities Are Paying the Price for State Capital’s Diversions

Laurann Cook is mayor pro tem of Fountain Valley

Over the last several years, California residents have watched as Sacramento lawmakers and the governor have taken billions of dollars out of local communities. This year, the state budget took $110 million more of local revenue than it did the year before. Money that would have otherwise gone to fix the potholes in your streets, buy playground equipment for the parks, replace aging storm drains and update police equipment has been diverted to balance the budget. Your everyday quality of life is eroded by the scandalous disregard of a legislative body which (with a few exceptions) is apparently indifferent to the needs of communities.

Because of this revenue rip-off, many communities must ask themselves questions such as “Which park do we close first?” “Which books should the library not buy?” or “How many years can we delay street maintenance?” and “Which intersections will no longer have crossing guards?” These questions would be unnecessary if the state government were held accountable for its actions. You, the residents, are the only ones who can make that happen. If we have better cities and communities, we will all have better lives.

A small investment of your time can make a big difference. As president of the Orange County chapter of the League of California Cities, I travel around the county and witness the positive results of the civic process at work in communities and cities. It is gratifying, particularly in this era of mistrust of government and institutions, to see how many talented, generous and dedicated people are involved in improving their local neighborhoods and communities. Whether it’s volunteering to answer phones at the Chamber of Commerce office, or getting involved in school and senior programs, or serving on your city’s planning commission, these activities make a big impact.

It’s frustrating that your job is so much more difficult because of Sacramento’s partisan focus on “winning” and “retaliating” rather than on solving problems. Again, there are exceptions--there are caring, courageous legislators. Orange County has some of these, but they can’t make the kind of changes needed in Sacramento by themselves.


So what can residents do to make sure revenue designated for local programs stay at the local level? First, Sacramento legislators and the governor need to get the message that you will no longer tolerate the rip-off of local revenue for state programs. They need to be told often and loudly and at the ballot box that your park (police, street, etc.) money is not to be used to subsidize programs for which the state receives its own money. In the early 1990s, the state used the excuse of the recession to justify its diversion of local revenue. (Local officials came to refer to this premise as the “shift and shaft” excuse.) So, what was the excuse for again taking revenue this year, when there was a budget surplus?

The second step is to tell Sacramento lawmakers and the governor that you expect them to make the same tough decisions as were made by private industry and local governments to reduce expenditures and find more efficient ways to do business. You probably are close to someone who felt the effects of downsizing. If you own a business, I am certain that you made changes to your operation to deal with the recession. I doubt that, like the state, you stole from your neighbor or business colleague rather than cut your own expenses.

I am aware of dozens of examples of cities and communities cooperating with each other and with other agencies to share resources and avoid duplication of effort and costs. It was cities and other local agencies who found the solution to revive Orange County’s public library system, to keep the landfills as a public asset, to join forces to find new ways of providing services and saving taxpayers millions of dollars. There is nothing to prevent lawmakers in Sacramento from doing the same.

Finally, join forces with other segments of your community to put pressure on Sacramento and the governor to fulfill their duties responsibly. The business community has come to understand that if their city isn’t healthy, business won’t be healthy. Business owners are working cooperatively with city and school officials to pressure their legislators to stop the rip-off of local revenues. You can very easily be a part of that partnership. Add the strength of your voice. Contact your local city hall and learn how little effort it will take on your part to have a better city and a better life.