New California cities? Not now

If communities in California have the desire and the tax base to make it on their own as independent cities, without increasing the resource burdens on their county governments or their neighbors or the state, then as a rule of thumb they ought to be able to give it a go. Self-governance and home rule are integral parts of American liberty.

But in their first few years after incorporation, cities are likely to need a financial boost from the rest of us, and right now, well — sorry, Jurupa Valley, Menifee, Wildomar and Eastvale, but we can’t afford you. With three much more established cities already in bankruptcy (Stockton, San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes), another one or two teetering and yet another recently emerged from proceedings (Vallejo), and with tax revenue down and budgets being cut for basic state functions, California must watch its money carefully. There’s no booster cash to launch those four new Riverside County cities, and now the very youngest, Jurupa Valley, which voted to become a city a year ago, says it might have to disincorporate.

Not to be flip, but that’s the way it goes. Communities that dream of cityhood must, for now, either be truly independent by forgoing state cash and taxing themselves at higher rates to make ends meet, or defer their plans until taxpayers elsewhere in the state can again afford to send them a multimillion-dollar birthday present.

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Of course, some politicians in the Inland Empire look at things a little differently. They find it convenient to view the cutoff of taxpayer money from other quarters in California as some sort of betrayal. They call it a state money grab and insist that the rest of us owe them cash to start their new cities. A year ago, when state lawmakers first diverted the funding to pay for needed public safety programs instead, some Republican officials said Gov. Jerry Brown targeted the cuts at them out of spite for their failure to support his request to put a tax extension on the ballot. A Riverside County supervisor called for secession and a new state of South California — and that pointless and unfortunate diversion of attention is the aspect of the story that made the national media, because it fit the shallow mold so easily: liberals versus conservatives, the deserts and mountains versus the coast, north (including, somehow, L.A. County) versus south.

The real story is the hypocrisy of those who agitate against government and taxes and yet insist that government keep sending them other people’s tax money — to help them form new governments, no less — when prudence requires spending the funds elsewhere.

But there is enough blame to spread thickly across the map, and it begins with the scheme hatched in the late 1990s to cut the vehicle license fee — the “car tax” — from 2% of a vehicle’s value, the rate it had been set at for 60 years.

Really? We’re going to discuss the car tax again? Yes, because that’s how Californians pay for local government, especially after we cut and capped property taxes in the 1970s. The car tax pays for cities and counties to meet their local health and welfare mandates and accounts for a huge chunk of cities’ general fund money. Take out the amount it costs the Department of Motor Vehicles to collect it, and what’s left over is the amount the state has on hand to help new cities organize and operate. So it stands to reason that when you slash the tax down to 0.65%, you’re going to have a lot less to spend on starting up new cities.


Californians didn’t notice it at first, because Sacramento had a budget surplus at the time and picked up the tab directly. Once the state had made up for the lost car tax money, cities old and new came to expect that the dollars would be there forever.

But of course they weren’t. The state needed that money to underwrite local public safety programs such as the one the Los Angeles Police Department uses to fight gangs, and when a temporary increase in the tax (though not up to its historic level) lapsed last year, the state had to dip into its base car tax money for those same public safety functions.

Meanwhile, California had been ordered to unpack the prisons that voters had filled by passing various conservative tough-on-crime measures. Public safety realignment diverts car tax money from things like starting new cities to jails and other programs that now must handle felons who formerly would have gone to state prison.

California’s in a jam, and it’s not because we’ve raised taxes, but because we’ve cut them while irresponsibly spending down surpluses. We can’t afford things we once paid for. That’s the problem that has come home to roost in Jurupa Valley. Cityhood dreams are important. But public safety — and solvency — come first.