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He Says It's Time to Put Up or Shut Down : Rancho Palos Verdes: Councilman Steve Kuykendall doesn't like big government or high taxes. But with his city deeply in debt, he says voters must decide whether to abandon local control or generate the money to support it.


When Steve Kuykendall won a seat on the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council in November, he was a "read my lips" conservative Republican opposed to big government and new taxes.

Like most people living in this upscale bedroom city of 42,000 on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, he didn't trust the distant state or federal bureaucracies and favored local control.

"It was them against us," he said.

He still feels that way, but his thinking has begun to change. The line between "them" and "us" has blurred and, at times, even he has felt the hot breath of anti-government hostility blowing his way.

After eight bruising months of trying to balance the city's red-ink-stained budget, the 45-year-old ex-Marine-turned-banker-and-politician has learned that when political ideology comes hard up against fiscal reality, something has to give.

Twice now he has found himself justifying tax increases of one kind or another and voting to raise revenues. That isn't popular in a city where Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2 to 1.

Kuykendall is now proposing a ballot measure asking Rancho Palos Verdes residents whether they want to keep local control or turn the reins of government back to the county.

The referendum language should be spare and blunt, he said, such as: "Should we abandon the city form of government?"

If the answer is yes, the council should settle the city's debts, close the doors at City Hall and disappear.

If the majority voted to keep local control, they would then have to specify how they intend to pay for paving streets and maintaining parks, police and fire services. The ballot would list taxing options to be checked off. There can be no more waffling; the message must be clear--either put up the money or shut down the city, he said.

"It's not a question of ideology, but whether a locally controlled city government can survive or not," Kuykendall said. "The voters have to decide if we're going to have local government or not. It's that simple. If they want local government, they're going to have to pay for it."

Rancho Palos Verdes is a sprawling, boots-and-saddles bit of suburbia that was incorporated nearly 20 years ago to stop high-density development. Perched on a rugged coastline and graced with spectacular ocean views, voters decided then that they wanted no part of high-rise condominiums, commercial shopping malls or industry.

The city was formed to control density and preserve the rural landscape. Wide, tree-lined streets, manicured yards, white rail fences, hiking and horse trails, a dozen city parks and a rich, laid-back lifestyle were valued more than a revenue-generating tax base.

City government by design was to be small and unobtrusive. No city hall was built; instead, the government was located in a cinder-block barracks building on an old Air Force missile base. Over the past decade a few temporary buildings have been added, but City Hall is still a surplus military barracks.

No city in the South Bay gets by on less tax money.

"This city is well managed and its staff is efficient," Kuykendall said. "But it has a basic fiscal flaw: There is no tax base, no commercial or industrial area to generate the kind of revenues needed to run the city."

From the start, in 1973, residents rejected the idea of commercial or industrial growth in Rancho Palos Verdes, believing they could make it on a residential property tax base uncluttered by shopping centers or factories. Then Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, cutting into the city's primary source of revenue. Since then the once-affluent city has lived off of reserves and has failed to pay the full cost of city services, Kuykendall said.

Faced with a declining economy and a $3-million revenue shortfall this year, the council has cut $1.5 million from the budget, cut services and lopped off 14 of the city's 50 employees. Still, projected revenues for the $7.2-million general fund budget are short by at least $1 million. And that doesn't count the potential loss of another $2 million in state funds because of the state budget crisis.

In April, Kuykendall went along with the rest of the council and asked the voters for more money, in the form of an annual parcel tax. The measure was narrowly rejected in that election. When the council came back with a proposal this month to form an assessment district to raise $868,000, it touched off a storm of protest.

The message from a small but vocal group before the council was clear: no more taxes. Even so, the council created the special assessment district. The average homeowner will pay an added $51 a year and the money will be used to maintain parks, median strips, street lights and traffic signals.

Kuykendall originally opposed forming the district but then voted for it after insisting that its authority be limited by a two-year sunset clause. Unless the voters approve an extension in the November, 1993, municipal elections, the district will cease to exist in 1994.

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