Two important power shifts are taking place in California. Power is shifting up from the cities and down from Sacramento to county government.
The first power shift is evidenced by last week’s decision by the Santa Ana City Council to disband its fire department and turn firefighting responsibilities over to the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA).
This is a turning point in local government. Santa Ana is Orange County’s largest city. Its fire department is more than a century old. Its City Council is composed of a majority of labor-friendly Democrats.
However, Santa Ana faces a $30-million budget deficit. OCFA says it can save the city $51 million through 2016. OCFA currently provides services to 22 of the county’s 34 cities as well as unincorporated areas.
Santa Ana’s decision will pave the way for many cash-strapped, if not all, Orange County’s cities to join OCFA.
Similarly, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) serves 15 cities as well as the unincorporated areas. The remaining 19 cities are much less likely to dismantle their own police departments and contract with the sheriff.
Fire and police services are about 60 percent of city budgets. However, police are a city’s biggest expense, and costs have soared due to pension obligations.
Many smaller departments in cities such as Brea, Buena Park, and Placentia, as well as mid-sized ones, such as Fullerton’s scandal-plagued department, may be forced to contract with the sheriff.
At the same time, Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan calls for counties to take over many state-run programs. These, according to the Sacramento Bee, include responsibility for the incarceration of lower-level criminal offenders, juvenile justice, adult parole, and mental-health programs.
Other programs will surely follow given the multibillion-dollar deficits expected for years. This is a vast and historic shift that reverses a decades-long trend in which program responsibility and taxing authority has moved to Sacramento.
How should Orange County’s government morph to accommodate these trends?
One possible model is Nassau County, which is in Long Island, New York.
Nassau County is similar to Orange County.
It is a mostly middle-class suburban community adjacent to New York City’s borough of Queens. It came of age after World War II when federal policies made it possible for returning vets to purchase tract homes in contiguous bedroom communities, like Levittown, which sprung up on former potato fields. It is automobile dependent, dotted with strip malls and suburban sprawl. There is no downtown, limited mass transit and little heavy industry.
Nassau has 1.4 million residents, only about half the number in Orange County.
However, unlike Orange County, which has 34 cities, Nassau County has only 2 cities and 3 towns.
Most public services are handled by the county, which is made up of a county executive, who is elected countywide, and a legislature which has 19 legislators.
Only three other countywide executive officials are elected: the district attorney, comptroller and clerk.
The Nassau County Police Department is responsible for the vast majority of police services. The police chief and most other officials are appointed by the county executive. The county is also responsible for all ambulance service, which accounts for 85 persent of fire department calls.
If Orange County had a legislature with the same proportion of elected officials per resident, it would have approximately 31 full time supervisors.
Before you dismiss this idea, consider the fact that Orange County’s government was designed for a population that had more cattle than people.
It still has a five-member county Board of Supervisors, and no countywide, elected chief executive, despite the fact that our population has grown to more than 3 million.
We also have 170 elected, part-time officials who sit on 34 city councils and many others who sit on a variety of special districts.
Do we really need this many people to manage public affairs, especially given the limited resources of the media to act as a watchdog?
Champions of local control feel that governmental power should be centered in individual cities.
Such an arrangement, however, has left the county vulnerable, as was recently seen when Sacramento robbed us of nearly $50 million in vehicle license fee revenue.
Moreover, Orange County does not have the influence it should in Sacramento, given the size of its population, the vitality of its economy and the pool of talent in the private and public sectors — as evidenced by the failure of many qualified elected officials to be taken seriously as candidates for statewide office.
There is universal agreement that Sacramento is dysfunctional, spendthrift and tone-deaf when it comes to creating a favorable business environment and incapable of implementing necessary reforms.
To extricate ourselves from this swamp, county governments, not cities, are fast becoming — and should be — the new governmental entity for exercising local control.
Fred Smoller, Ph.D., teaches public administration at Brandman University and is Voice of OC’s newest Community Editorial Board member.
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