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The Shame of the Counties

November 23, 1987


That word was angrily scrawled across a handbill announcing the closure of the Shasta County Library recently. But shame did not start and end at the door of the library in Redding. It extended to the county hospital, as well. In nearby Tehama County, The Times' Peter H. King reported, officials talked about possible bankruptcy. In Oroville, they even have discussed eliminating the entire Butte County government. And state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) recently suggested a study that might lead to the disbanding of county government as outmoded and inefficient.

The elimination of county government is not likely, in the near future in any event. But something needs to be done to alleviate the shame of the counties in California, which stems primarily from fiscal starvation. Two major political events or trends have caused the plight of the counties: the passage of Proposition 13, the property tax-limit measure, in 1978, and the Legislature's habit of creating new programs to be administered by counties and doing so without providing enough money to support the programs.

County government suffered most keenly from Proposition 13 because the counties historically have been heavily dependent on the property tax for revenues. In 1977-78, the 58 county governments collected more than $10 billion in property taxes. That plummeted to barely more than $5 billion the following year. Emergency bailout money from the state helped, of course, but county government is at the mercy of the state in adopting new revenue-raising measures of its own and the state has been particularly stingy in this regard.

Since Proposition 13 passed, the counties' taxable assessed value has increased tenfold, but total income from the property tax has crept back to the 1977-78 level only within the past two years--in inflated dollars at that. In the meantime, the counties have lost critical federal revenue-sharing and have largely failed to persuade the Legislature to give them more taxing authority. Many of the rural counties are undergoing population explosions that have put an additional strain on services like welfare, health care and law enforcement.

The fiscal crisis certainly is not limited to rural California. Los Angeles County faced a $170-million shortfall early this year and the preface to the 1987-88 budget noted that "funding of the most urgent priorities has come at the expense of other programs."

While California is not likely to abandon county government soon, there is merit in Speaker Brown's proposed study of local government services and finance. There was a good deal of truth in his statement that California has a random assortment of governments battling for the same dollars and providing a service-delivery system "that is more of a crazy quilt than a safety net."

Perhaps some neighboring counties can pool their resources through cooperative agreements and thus save money while improving services. Clearly in some areas, a regional approach to problems such as transportation and air quality is indicated, possibly even in construction of joint jail facilities or mental health clinics. At the least the Legislature should be willing to give the counties greater taxing authority.

Sacramento should not be willing to see the word "shame" scrawled across the closed doors of any more libraries, hospitals or any other essential county facility in California.

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