The El Dorado Grand Jury issued its annual report and one of the recommendations was a serious look at the elimination of two cities by dissolving and merging with the county. Eighty five percent of the county’s residents are served by the county, only Placerville and South Lake Tahoe are the exceptions.
The Grand Jury notes that the process of forming a city is over 150 years old and while appropriate to that time, has long outlived its usefulness. Placerville, the home of the California gold rush, was overwhelmed by thousands of miners and no services, especially law and order. In 1850 it took months to get a letter to San Francisco, the circuit judge came twice a year and there was no fire or planning. It’s easy to see why people all over the country banded together, to protect themselves, to provide some sense of order.
After police and fire came all the other services that the passage of time demanded. In the same way business grew in our great nation, companies were formed and services provided. The difference between the private and the public is that the private cannot tax and must be productive to survive. The results, companies founded in our lifetime, look very different today. All the while government remains the same as it did a hundred years ago. I recently inspected a police car and was told that the car can do more then an entire police station could do 20 years ago, yet cities continue to operate just like they did 50 years ago — while providing the taxpayer less service. Fifty years ago people actually knew the policeman that patrolled their area, that parks and athletic fields were free. Prior to 1976 and Proposition 13, cities got away with it because they just raised the taxes to meet their demands, then taxpayers revolted and cities had to be responsible. But instead of responsibility they cut services and looked for ways to make money. Building permits now cost thousands; you pay to use the athletic fields. Why? Because the city shifted from service to money making.
In South Lake Tahoe the city council, that does little more than rubber stamp the staff programs, cost over $200,000 a year. Add the city clerk and other staff support and the cost approaches a million dollars. Why? Ego seems to be the most popular answer or “We have always done it this way.”
The county sheriff is about 100 feet from the local police station. The county and cities’ planning, snow removal and social services are just down the street. Why do we need this duplication of service, the duplication of management? Imagine how many copy machines and phone systems we are paying for at a cost over $9 million annually.
Cities are going bankrupt, services have diminished; it’s time to move our thinking in to the 21st century. First with the telephone, today with the computer, fewer are able to do more with less. Our roads are crumpling, the cost of our public recreation is growing. The city of South Lake Tahoe has shown us it can do with less; today the staff has been drastically cut because of budget issues. But what if we did more than try to save money? What if we increase our financial base while at the same time expand out local input?
It can be done. Rather than localize through cities the tax base and the service, we need to expand our tax base and create local commissions that specialize. If we go back to the county your tax bill will not go down, but the financial base for service grows. A working family with three children pays as much as $1,000 a year so their children can use public soccer fields. The result is no soccer for that family. We blame fast food for childhood obesity, I blame lack of recreation, recreation that should be a government service, not a profit center.
With the entire county as a financial base we then create a local “Recreation Commission.” That local group is locals that know about their sports. The local group meets regularly, takes in local input then goes to the county-wide meetings and fights for a share of the county’s dollars, which would include the million dollar homes of El Dorado Hills.
There is no perfect answer, but like health insurance, you have to have some well people in the program to support the ill. We would have a local roads commission, a local planning commission, local interest and people serving on these commissions. At the same time, the financial pot is bigger, the needs better served.
First, by the massive elimination of the local waste and duplication, and then by the deeper pockets of the larger pool. You get the best of both. I suggest it’s worth looking at, but without voter pressure the local beneficiaries of the current system will not.
Ted long is a former South Lake Tahoe city council member and was foreperson of the El Dorado County Grand Jury. He served as chairman of LAFO and is a past president of the League of California Cities Sacramento division.