Is it possible to reshape the way California is governed?
At a time of continuing unhappiness with the governor and Legislature, several groups have issued proposals that would redesign the financial structure of the state. But now is the time to not only rethink the fiscal systems of California but to redesign how services are delivered.
Here are areas that need to be considered in the reform movement and in any debate about governing the state:
Special districts are a holy grail in California communities, but are they still needed? Many began when and where services did not exist. Today, according to Peter Detwiler, staff director of the state Senate's Local Government Committee, California has about 3,400 special districts. Many counties have multiple water, sewer, fire and transportation districts. Why not consolidate or annex them to local municipalities? The administrative savings alone would be worth millions to taxpayers, and more-efficient services would result.
Counties have been the real losers in this last budget go-round. They perform many of the same services that cities provide and also those that are mandated by the state: public and mental health, social services, tax collection, courts and probation.
Why not create regional forms of government that would reduce duplication? Counties can provide services that cover larger geographical areas, and cities can serve the day-to-day needs of their communities such as land-use planning, public works, building safety, parks and recreation, and police.
If cities are too small to provide their own police departments, they can contract with neighboring communities; it is done frequently throughout the state. Counties can contract with nearby cities to provide day-to-day municipal services for their own rural areas. The elimination of some of these functions would result in huge savings to local governments and more streamlined delivery of services.
California has 58 counties. Each presents a laboratory of opportunities for reshaping government. Santa Barbara County has a population of 405,000 and 10 fire protection agencies. Services are provided by some of the cities, the county, special districts, and state and federal programs that include firefighting. In some areas, training and communication systems have already been combined. Small communities can be very protective of their fire departments, but a single consolidated fire service program could provide greater resources and increased service levels. Why not unify all county fire programs into one area-wide agency?
What I especially like about Ms. Rose's suggestions is that not only would streamlining and reorganization of government services likely result in the provision of better services, it also would improve government accountability. Right now just about every level of government in California is involved in just about every kind of government service. This overlapping of jurisdictions makes it difficult, if not impossible for voters to know who to go to when they need help or have a complaint or question. Streamlining government services would make it easier for the public to know which political leaders are responsible for delivering those services and rewarding or punishing them according to performance.