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Community Commentary: Government's power should be concentrated at county level

December 17, 2011|By Fred Smoller

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 the impending 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 100 years old. Its City Council is composed of all labor-friendly Democrats. However, Santa Ana faces a $30-million budget deficit.

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OCFA says it can save the city $51 million through 2016. OCFA 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, of the rest of Orange County's cities to join OCFA.

Similarly, the Orange County Sheriff's Department 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% 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 scandal-plagued Fullerton, 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 multi-billion 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 in Long Island, N.Y.

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