CAN THIS COUNTY BE SAVED?




 

Can This County Be Saved?
 
Alternative solutions may be found to mend
 
By JUNE RICH
9/26/02
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER


MIKE ELIASON/NEWS-PRESS
With a new housing development in the background, farmworkers carry bushels of bell peppers to be sorted and boxed.

In the coming months, county residents will get earfuls of conflicting bombast about splitting the county - reflecting the deep north-south divide along cultural, economical and political lines - but will hear few practical suggestions about healing the hostility and averting divorce.

Many of the differences fueling the county's family feud are mirrored in similar battles around the state, from the Central Valley to the Los Angeles basin - private sector boosters vs. slow-growth government, farmers vs. environmentalists, family values vs. liberal freedoms.

Public policy experts say the battles now unfolding in Santa Barbara are at once typical of and more extreme than those in other parts of California.

"What's playing out in Santa Barbara County is part of the inherent tension in any democratic system with competing interests trying to resolve themselves," said Matt Newman, director of the California Institute of County Governments. "There may not be a better system for doing that, though the current system is not perfect. This tension plays out throughout California."

As a practical matter, there are several possible solutions for addressing the rifts that divide us, short of splitting the county.

Recall/elections - For the North County, the most immediate solution would be the successful recall of Supervisor Gail Marshall, which would dramatically and swiftly shift the balance of power toward the North on the county's decision-making body, the Board of Supervisors. A temporary remedy at best, the recall would just as likely trigger outrage among outvoted southern interests, who might well launch their own political machinations to regain the upper hand. Ms. Marshall's supporters, of course, argue that the orth could avail itself of the normal election cycle, running its own candidate to win the powerful 3rd District swing seat.

Charter county - Santa Barbara could become a charter county.

Charter counties have greater leeway to run their operations as they like. By contrast, general law counties like Santa Barbara are structured more on a common template set forth by the state. Under a charter, the county could add more supervisors to the board to create smaller districts. Within that scenario, elected officials might feel more accountable to their constituencies - a stated goal of secession backers - though the squabbling on the board may only intensify with more personalities.

The county also could elect its supervisors at large, rather than by district, under a charter. Each supervisor would still hail from a particular area, but would be elected by all the voters in the county, a possible antidote to this region's polarized politics.

"What tends to happen is they battle it out for the middle," Mr. Newman said. "At-large supervisors will look for solutions of the greatest benefit to the whole county. With district elections, people tend to look out for the interests of the district."

But if a county's rural areas are the ones feeling disenfranchised, he said, they might end up feeling more so under such a system. Rural areas wield less political muscle because they have fewer voters, he said.

Santa Barbara could become a charter county by the approval of a simple majority of voters.

Regional councils - The existing Board of Supervisors could create advisory councils for the communities that feel ignored. Such a move can be politically shrewd because elected leaders can turn over nasty disputes to these groups to solve for themselves. Santa Barbara County already has numerous advisory committees, however.

"The downside is that they're only advisory," said Peter Detwiler, a consultant with the California Senate's Local Government Committee. "But leaders can't exactly ignore them either. They do so at their political peril."

Under this scenario, northern communities could ask the supervisors for a North County planning commission.

In July, the Board of Supervisors approved one for Montecito, at a cost of $71,000 per year. Starting in March, the panel will review development projects, but will leave regional issues such as transportation and affordable housing to the countywide Planning Commission. The Board of Supervisors still has the power to overturn either commission's recommendations.

Many observers believed granting Montecito greater land-use authority squelched any insurgency to form a city there. The North County supervisors didn't support the idea at the time, saying it would cost too much. Fifth District Supervisor Tom Urbanske also said that he felt the county was already too balkanized.

All of these ideas strike many advocates of the new Mission County as paltry Band-Aids on a fatal wound. The cure, they say, is to cut out the infection that festers along the county's divide, and let both sides begin to heal.

Several outside observers agreed that the breach in Santa Barbara County may have reached the point of no return.

"I'm just not aware of any counties that have a level of disagreement that would cause an even halfway serious discussion of splitting a county," said Brent Harrington of the Regional Council of Rural Counties.

Jean Hurst, an analyst with the California State Association of Counties, offered a more dire forecast.

"I think a lot of counties experience this urban-rural tension, but you seem to be in quite a unique situation," she said. "I don't know if there are any fences to be mended anymore in Santa Barbara County."


MIKE ELIASON/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
The North has its flower fields, the South has its palm trees.

CLOSER TO THE PEOPLE

If a split does occur, experts foresee constituencies that feel better represented, though elected officials in the sundered counties would likely wield less political clout on the state stage. Many also forecast financial problems because of the costs of duplicating services, and because smaller counties tend to have less-diverse economies.

Right now, Santa Barbara County is No. 20 among California's 58 counties in population. In the event of a split, Mission and Santa Barbara counties would drop somewhere near No. 27, with populations of about 200,000 each.

The elected representatives in the two smaller counties would represent half as many people as they do now in Santa Barbara County. Their bureaucrats presumably would serve fewer people, too.

"We've just doubled our representation," said Jim Diani, one of the founders of the current split movement. "It's in our back yard now. There's not the potential absentee control. Whatever (the current Board of Supervisors) decided for the North, they don't have to live with it. If a majority of people (in the proposed Mission County) want more or less growth, their board of supervisors will reflect it."

In Merced County, with around 212,000 people, Chief Executive Demitrios Tatum echoed what many people said about life in counties his size.

"You end up having a closer relationship with the citizenry. They stop me at Raley's. You have Vons down there, but we've got Raley's. They say, 'Hey, what's going on with this? How is this Williamson Act going to work?'"'; he said, referring to a program that reduces taxes on farms and ranches. "And they clearly expect real, specific answers. They don't want broad generalities.

"It's accountability at its highest level," he added. Residents seem to agree.

Ms. Hurst, the analyst from the California Association of Counties, said she has great access to her supervisors in Yolo County, another county similar in size to Mission. Ms. Hurst conceded that her job undoubtedly gives her a leg up reaching her representatives, but added that most people she knows say the same thing.

"Does that lead to better government?" she said. "I don't know. But I do know that people feel better to know they can go talk to their supervisor. There's a sense that you're one of the few rather than one of the many."

The smaller bureaucracy translates, at times, to a more efficient work environment.

"People here are less formal," said Howard Newens, Auditor-Controller in Yolo. Mr. Newens previously worked in one of the state's biggest counties, Alameda. "You can get your work done just by talking to people. You can get answers more quickly because you know the key staff people."

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said he knows all 200 of his employees by name, and swears in new recruits himself. "I believe that if I'm taking an interest in them - by getting out to the different substations, the jail, other facilities - it translates to them taking care of their duties in a better way," he said.

FURTHER FROM SACRAMENTO

A smaller county might also have a smaller voice in Sacramento, some say.

"At a time when counties are having a very hard time coping with all of these fiscal stresses, I'm always amazed that someone wants to become a new county," Mr. Detwiler said. "The new counties are the Rodney Dangerfields of local government."

"My personal reaction is that it would be a terrible mistake," said Don Benninghoven, formerly the executive director of the California League of Cities for more than 25 years. He has since retired in Santa Barbara. "Santa Barbara County has built up a name recognition that is not going to be easy to replace. The new county is going to be like the newest football team in a franchise."

Mr. Benninghoven said Mission County's voice would be drowned out by bigger players in Sacramento, whether lobbying for money or legislative change.

"They just don't have the political strength that the larger counties do," he said. "Santa Barbara County has been a player with the major counties. Almost all of the funds the county receives from the state are based on formulas. They certainly don't discriminate against the large counties in those formulas."

The diminished power of rural counties is evident in countless state policy choices, according to Mr. Harrington. He said Mission County would be eligible to join the council, which includes members as diverse as Alpine, Napa and Placer counties.

As an example, he cited Gov. Gray Davis' suggestion in May that the state stop paying back counties for preserving farmland under the Williamson Act. That suggestion ultimately didn't fly, but the very idea sent shockwaves through counties with large tracts of farmland.

"People in urban areas might think, 'Who cares?' he said. "It's not a big deal to them financially because it's not a big part of their economies. For some of our members, it would be devastating."

SMALLER COUNTY, LESS MONEY

In most cases, the smaller a county becomes, the less money it gets, according to numerous experts and county officials. That's because all counties have to fund certain things - computers, desks, patrol cars, office buildings - regardless of size or budget.

And all counties have to provide certain services and hire a certain number of employees to sustain basic operations, regardless of size.

In the event of a split, each county would have to pay its own district attorney, its own public works director, its own board of supervisors. The duplication would extend to countless positions.

"Napa (County) has to run the same payroll system that I do. It has the same reporting requirements with a lot less staff and money," said Bob Geis, Santa Barbara County's auditor-controller. "That means they can't produce the same timely financial reports that I do, along with all the other extras."

Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto talked about the operation of his jail as an example.

Regardless of the number of inmates, he needs a certain number of people to supervise the gates, to oversee the prisoners in their pods, to book new arrests.

"You still need the basic fundamentals to run an operation," he said.

Those costs can consume a smaller county's budget, some officials said. A bigger county can absorb them, then redirect its extra money to enrich programs or pay for new equipment.

Mr. Newens, the auditor in Yolo County, said he can't afford the up-front cost of an online system for residents to pay their property taxes. But bigger counties can.

"If we collected more, we'd be able to purchase better computer resources," he said. "And I would predict that we would have better tax collection rates because it would be easier to pay. Right now, we have to hire extra help in December and April to process all the checks when they come in. It's very labor intensive."

Despite all of those potential financial drawbacks, some argued that leaders in smaller counties do tend to be more frugal. "Rural county supervisors are more fiscally responsible, regardless of their political party. They're more frugal and tend to get more bang for their buck," Mr. Harrington said. "I've never quite figured out why it's like that. Maybe it's because there's less money to throw around, so they're more careful with it."

OTHER PITFALLS

Smaller, more rural counties tend to have less diverse economies, Mr. Harrington said.

"They tend to be focused on natural resources of the area, such as timber and farming," he said. "All you need is part of that economy to be tweaked downward and you're going to have problems."

When a giant vegetable-packing company went out of business a few years back in Merced, it sent ripples through other related businesses.

"We really felt the impact," said Mr. Tatum, the county's chief executive officer. "We're heavily reliant on agriculture, and it was like a domino effect throughout our agricultural businesses."

Mr. Detwiler cited another common problem - smaller counties tend to have more elected department heads.

He said that stems from the community's desire for greater accountability and for power to be shared by more people. That can make it difficult to run a county, he said.

"I knew a former (county administrative officer) who told me that running a smaller county was like trying to herd a flock of grasshoppers," Mr. Detwiler said.

"To the extent that the new Mission County ends up looking like other counties its size, with a greater number of directly elected county department heads, they may be less well-equipped to deal with problems," he said. "There's a fragmentation of authority and, ultimately, of accountability. It's hard to hold anyone accountable if everyone's in charge. And the county might have a much harder time moving consistently in the same direction to achieve change."

e-mail: jrich@newspress.com

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