An article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times recently highlights some of the regionalization pressures cities are under these days as they deal with huge debt loads and declining tax revenues. Here is how The Times laid out the predicament faced by three of our neighboring cities, plus the possible solution:
Cash-strapped cities consider joining forces - Officials in Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena are considering consolidating services from police dispatches to technology, jointly purchasing supplies and linking public transit.
Faced with multimillion-dollar budget deficits brought on by spiraling revenue and escalating employee costs, Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena are considering consolidating a wide range of services and programs to save money. Early discussions have focused on joint police dispatches, technology services and joining together to buy supplies from paper clips to brake pads. Long-term ideas include a bus service linking the three cities. The goal is to pull inspiration out of desperation, officials said, as they try to weather the recession. The ideas are in their infancy, but officials stress that they won't be easy because regionalizing services probably will lead to staff reductions.
Up until now any discussions of regionalization we've had usually dealt with the pressures being put upon towns such as ours to accommodate the kinds of massive development called for in such Sacramento initiatives such as SB 375. The Jetsons-style vision of the future that sees us exiting our bucolic single family home lifestyles for densely developed core cities closely packed around transportation corridors and employment centers.
But certainly that can't be all there is to it. As we know, the driving force of most everything in this old world of ours is money. SB 375, despite all the greenwash being used to sell it to the citizens, is in many ways an effort to prop up such failing California industries as development and construction. The pitch to the suckers being that they aren't giving up a higher quality lifestyle, they're helping to save the world. Now go turn your house over to the city and buy yourself a nice fifth floor condo.
Isn't it logical that one of the forces also behind the kinds of regionalization coming along with SB 375 would be the ability to consolidate city services within a larger regional apparatus? And in the process saving a whole lot of increasingly scarce money?
Why would every city need a planning department when planning is being handled by the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs)? Why would every city need to maintain a finance department when fiscalization of regional resources becomes the way taxation and the allocation of funds are accomplished? Or a fire department when that service can be easily handled through budgetarily more efficient superstations located throughout the San Gabriel Valley? And beyond the vanity factor, are there really any good reasons for each and every town maintaining a Police Department when that responsibility can be easily pooled into a regional force, one that would be far cheaper to staff, maintain and (most importantly), pension?
"You have to look at the impacts on labor, budget savings, service levels, and then look at the amount of brain damage you have to go through to actually pull this off," said Burbank City manager Mike Flad. "When you're dealing with 80% of your budget being labor, efficiency means less people."
In Sierra Madre we haven't been quite as pressured by the financial constraints being faced by our sister cities, at least for now. The UUT hike has been far more provident than even its advocates hoped, and the revenues raised through this tax increase have been able to float a lot of otherwise quite expensive boats through this seemingly endless recession. But the UUT hike does have a sunset clause, and given the financial pressures many now face in their business lives, there is no guarantee that the voters will ever approve such a thing again. And then how will Sierra Madre be able to justify some of the things we're paying for now? Under conditions such as those saving a million bucks a year by signing on with another city's police department might get a second, and far harder, look. Something that could be just the beginning of some other very serious cost cutting as well.
Politics is often about convincing people to support things that are actually detrimental to their own personal interests. Done in order to help a favored constituency achieve its financial goals. In Sierra Madre's recent election we saw gullible voters become convinced that the regionalist pro-development candidates were actually the ones working towards preserving the independent small community that most here favor. That the perpetrators employed some of the nastiest tactics seen this side of Los Angeles to make it happen is, of course, to be expected. It's how the big boys get what they want.
But here as elsewhere it is not just the voters that are needed to achieve these kinds of unpopular goals. The willing cooperation and hard work of city staffs and employees are required as well. People who could very well be happily working towards a time when their services will no longer be required.