Cities and Counties: Serving a Shared Constituency and Working to Preserve Our Quality of Life
by Robin Lowe
California’s increasingly dire fiscal predicament commands the attention of every local official and public servant today. We all know firsthand that the state system of finance and governance is profoundly broken and needs to be reformed. That’s in part why we are working so hard to pass Proposition 22, the Local Taxpayer, Public Safety and Transportation Protection Act of 2010 — so we can more clearly differentiate between state and local revenues. We don’t need another $2.1 billion redevelopment raid to prove to us the current fiscal relationship is broken.
In June, I participated in a strategic planning meeting of the CCS Partnership, which is a joint effort of the League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties and the California School Boards Association to strengthen local collaboration among our members. This is the same group that sponsored last year’s Summit on State Governance and Budget Reform. At the CCS meeting, the officers of all three organizations reflected on the value of the partnership over the past 15 years and the importance of using it as an ongoing forum to consider ideas for reforming California and the state-local relationship. We share an overarching concern: making sure that the essential services our residents need are adequately funded.
The Challenges Confronting California
Counties, cities and schools all provide these essential services, and we serve a shared constituency. But counties bear the responsibility of providing an extraordinarily broad spectrum of social services as well as health care, mental health, public safety and criminal justice services. They serve our most vulnerable populations — the elderly, the mentally ill and those struggling to rise out of poverty. By law, counties ultimately must care for the needy when no one else will. They must also enforce laws, prosecute people charged with criminal acts and run the jails.
County services essentially hold together the fabric of life in our communities. For example, when a city resident creates a public disturbance by behaving erratically and disturbing the peace, a city cop picks that person up and takes him or her to the county’s mental health department for evaluation. The county places the person into appropriate care and connects him or her with needed services and support. While these safety net services play a key role in preserving and protecting the community’s quality of life, they occur in a way that typically goes unseen by residents — they are essentially invisible to many if not most people.
As counties face yet another round of devastating cuts to their budgets and state-financed services, the consequences have grave public safety implications for both counties and cities. Drastically reduced social services and mental health services mean more people will end up on the streets, which creates public safety issues for county sheriffs and city police. With fewer cops to serve our communities due to budget cuts, the public is at risk. At the same time, district attorneys’ office staff and prosecutors are being cut, which means that criminal cases will take even longer to reach the court system — and many of those charged with crimes will be also be on the streets.
So it’s clear that cities and counties have a shared destiny and shared interests. We are all suffering as a consequence of the bust-or-boom financial roller coaster that California has been riding for nearly two decades. Like cities, counties must dip into their General Funds when the state does not provide the funding it should. But because the direct services provided by counties span such a wide range and affect so many people, the state’s inability to adequately fund counties severely impacts our communities’ quality of life.
When “Realignment” Is Code for “Pass the Responsibility But Not the Funding”
How the State of California does business affects the fiscal health of counties and cities, and the state has reached an unprecedented level of dysfunction. The fact that counties play a key role as agents of the state in administering programs only compounds the problem. When the state decides it wants to offload program responsibilities to counties as it did in the program “realignment” of 1991 during another fiscal crisis, it is usually the counties that end up holding the bag. As the Senate Democrats noted in their recent announcement of a new “restructuring” proposal, some of the original flexibility provided to counties under the 1991 realignment has been “whittled away” and the costs of those programs have risen.
What’s Needed: More Local Control
As we consider how government might work better in California, it’s clear that counties need more authority to administer programs allocated to them by the state. Counties rightly believe they would be able to save a great deal of money if they had more control and were less subject to the state’s micromanagement, which slows progress and consumes valuable resources unnecessarily. And as city officials know all too well, in California the one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. Counties need more authority to tailor programs and services to meet the unique needs of our diverse communities; they cannot continue to be providers of last resort and function effectively with the current restraints imposed by the state.
What You Can Do
We must work together — cities, counties and schools — to redouble our efforts around reforming the state-local relationship. Proposition 1A of 2004 made a good start in addressing the problem, but much remains to be done. I encourage you to reach out to your county supervisors and administrative staff. Familiarize yourself with the important services they provide and offer to partner with them to ensure a more reliable funding stream for those services. Collaborate on how we can best serve the needs of our shared constituents and preserve the quality of life in our communities. Let’s focus on our common goals and move forward.