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COUNTY GOVERNMENT : A Budget That Only Regionalists Dream Of

June 25, 1995|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press.)

The cuts proposed in the Los Angeles County budget, including shutting down County General, are drastic. They cry out for alternatives because, in the long run, such deep cuts in county spending, coupled with those destined to be made in Congress and in Sacramento, will only exacerbate our problems. If we want a livable society, a goal complicated by the county's growing diversity, we must set another course.

For years, urban areas have been treated like yo-yos, rising or falling on the strings of changing political winds. In the 1960s, federal aid expanded both the level and scope of local services. The money declined in the '70s, although revenue-sharing helped to close the gap. Banks and tax credits discouraged inner-city investment, which added to urban distress. When most federal aid dried up in the '80s, California cities were especially hurt because they were relying on Washington to offset revenue losses stemming from the passage of Proposition 13. The state used local funds to balance its own budget, and cities and counties turned to user fees and permits to raise money and offset the losses.

The problem is not that L.A. County has been profligate, although there is certainly room for improvement. Rather, community needs have risen far faster than local government's capacity to respond, while revenue sources have been unreliable or shrinking.

Yet, the county's budget woes may provide the opportunity that regionalists have been waiting for. If all governments in and around L.A. County cannot afford to solve their problems on their own, it may be time they recognize the benefits of cooperative government. Not another bureaucracy, just better traffic management; not another layer of bureaucracy that impedes action, but a system that allocates resources, plans for the future and works with existing agencies--in and out of government--to meet existing and emerging needs.

We already have cooperation on law enforcement, fire fighting and libraries. We see it every year during the fire season, when fire fighters from around the state, if not the country, are called in. But there is another county experiment that might serve as a model for such cooperative government. It is the Municipal Mutual Assistance Model for Intergroup Conflict Resolution, developed by the County's Human Relations director, Ron Wakabayashi.

The program acknowledges that the problems we face as a community--in this case, problems of living with diversity--are not issues that can be individually managed by each of the county's 88 cities. If there's a human-relations problem in Compton, for example, the program calls on experts, conflict managers and representative organizations from around the county to go to Compton and help find a solution.

"Community conflict," contends a concept paper supporting such an approach, "does not lend itself to direct negotiation. Communities of interest must be represented, usually through some organizational infrastructure, in a mediating process." Essentially, the Human Relations Commission is offering itself as a mediating institution, with countywide resources, to ease tensions arising from racial, ethnic, religious or life-style differences.

If we had a way to draw upon on a countywide pool of resources, we might be able to better meet our burgeoning health needs. Most hospitals cannot handle the emergency services County-USC does--certainly not its volume. But there are plenty of hospitals with a bed-occupancy rate of 50% or less. Technology ought to help us identify and share the resources of these relatively idle hospitals. The result would be greater efficiency and better service.

In a society charged with tension, the county's Intergroup Conflict Resolution program has clear benefits. But intergovernmental cooperation is an even clearer benefit. Local government's responsibility for the health, education and welfare of citizens will not go away. The money needed to carry out this responsibility--and all the other basic responsibilities of county government--is going to be hard to come by.

With anti-government sentiment running high, the only way to go about that is to develop a smarter, not a larger, government. And the only way we can do that is to learn how to help each other. What we have to start learning is how to be more flexible in making decisions, how to bring different resources to bear on problems and how to reach out across jurisdictions. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

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