Now is the the summer of our discontent.The economy has not improved enough for most of us to feel very sunny about our immediate financial circumstances and that’s doubly and triply true for local government.
While some folks like to draw a line of separation between themselves and the agencies which serve them, it’s a false division.
The people of, for instance, Garden Grove, ARE the City of Garden Grove. The people of California ARE the State of California and so on. So when our public agencies start to stagger financially, it’s not just “them” that’s taking the hit, it’s all of us.
Take the example of Stanton, a small city which is now down to 19 full-time employees (barely enough for a full baseball game), and which contracts with the County of Orange for police and fire services. It’s always been a bit of a shoe-string operation compared to such financial behemoths as Anaheim and Irvine, but few could say with a straight face that it wasn’t run efficiently.
Now, if you listen to some voices on the city council, Stanton teeters on the edge of insolvency and dissolution. This is actually Stanton 2.0, you know. Local history buffs will recall that an earlier Stanton, 16 miles square (almost as large as present-day Garden Grove) was created about a hundred years ago to hold off encroachment from Anaheim.
In a short-sighted move to avoid road taxes, the city was disincorporated a decade later. It remained county territory until the mid-Fifties, when a much-smaller Stanton (about four square miles) was founded.
At various times in its history, the city’s identity has been at issue. A proposal to change the name was floated, and one local politician even suggested splitting the city in two, the area above Katella going to Anaheim and the area below becoming part of Garden Grove.
In rough economic waters like these, you are going to hear more and more about some agencies being “too small to exist.” School districts and municipalities with modest enrollments and square footage will be under pressure to give up their ideas about self-government and just merge into their bigger neighbors.
I say don’t do it. As soon as you do, you’ll find that all the promises of love and care are next-to-worthless. Look at the example of Los Angeles, which gobbled up (and largely ignored) dozens of smaller communities for decades. No person with an least a nodding acquaintance of that city’s civic government or school district will point there to indicate models of efficiency or vision.
The immediate (partial) solution to Stanton’s financial problems is to take the utility tax increase back to the voters as soon as possible. This stuff about “living within your means” is a bunch of applesauce. When it’s a matter of survival you’ve got to bend the budget and dig down deep. If a family member needs medical care, you don’t say, “Sorry, that’s not in my spending plan. I have to live within my means.”
I think the utility tax will stand a better chance on a second go-round. June’s election had an epic low turnout, which typically favors those who are the grumpiest about taxes.
In the fall, with a presidential election on the ballot (along with hot button issues such as abolishing the death penalty and imposing a tax on oil and gas production to help education) should boost the numbers dramatically.
This would give a fairer representation of the true feelings of Stanton’s residents.
Also, the problem with county services is that once you dissolve your own police and fire departments and go with the OC, you’re at the mercy of what amounts to a monopoly. You are stuck with whatever salaries, fringe benefits and other practices the county decides upon, and there’s no place else to go. This is a good lesson to remember for those who might want Garden Grove to follow Santa Ana into the Orange County Fire Authority.
Perhaps the OCFA has newer equipment and more bodies, but once you give up local control, you have probably done it forever. In the name of alleged “economy,” you might argue that the entire county should be protected by police and fire services run by the OC and entirely beyond the reach of local communities.
Bigger is not always better, and, in fact, it is often much worse. Let’s think about the long term, not just this temporary storm. If we abandon our own ships and climb on somebody else’s boat, we’re going to have to steer their course, not ours, for a long time.