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Ventura County Perspective

Getting Beyond Civic Ego

Cities geographically and economically linked should work together on problems rather than seek all the profits alone.

June 29, 1997|WILLIAM FULTON | William Fulton is editor of the Ventura-based California Planning & Development Report. His new book, "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles" (Solano Press Books) includes a chapter on Sales Tax Canyon

Civic pride is one thing. But civic ego is something else again.

I've lived in Ventura for a decade now, and I'm happy here. It suits me and I like it. I don't want to live in Camarillo. I don't want to live in Oxnard. For better or worse, I'm a Venturan.

Yet when I have to have a meeting with my marketing consultant or my postal specialist, I head over to Oxnard. Sometimes when I go to the movies, I go to Camarillo because the big multiplex over there has better times. We even trek up the Grade now and then to shop at the Promenade in Thousand Oaks. And just as often, I see my friends from these other cities here in Ventura--at the county fair, at the beach or at the harbor.

Much as we like to deny it, we in Ventura County are connected to each other in a thousand little ways we don't even think about.

We love the fact that each town has its own identity--not least because it helps to establish our own identity as individuals. But at the same time, we all live together in a fast-growing mini-metropolis. We may be separate politically, but we are clearly connected geographically and economically.

So maybe it's time to get past this civic ego thing.

For 15 years at least, the three main cities in western Ventura County have been engaged in a headlong scramble to outdo the others. You are proposing a multiplex theater? We will propose one too. You want a stadium? So do we. You are planning an aquarium. Well, we will build an even wetter one.

The biggest and most destructive scramble, of course, has been the bitter fight over the construction of "Sales Tax Canyon"--the 10-mile strip of Ventura Freeway from Camarillo Premium Outlets to Buenaventura Mall--where all three cities have hustled to construct the most lucrative assortment of retail stores.

The main reason for the creation of Sales Tax Canyon is California's screwy tax system. Thanks to Proposition 13, which restricted property taxes, Ventura County's city governments are now dependent on retail sales taxes to stay afloat. This sad fact has pitted our cities against one another.

The city in which a retail transaction takes place--no matter where the buyers or sellers may live--is where the sales tax stays. If I go to Camarillo Premium Stores and buy a shirt, the tax stays in Camarillo, even though the shirt comes back to Ventura.

So the cities have shamelessly subsidized big retailers and sued each other to try to boost their tax revenue. This is unfortunate, because retailing is a faddish and volatile industry--ill-equipped to provide the stable funding a city needs to pay for a consistent level of police and fire protection and other public services.

When you ask the city managers about this destructive game of chicken, they will agree that it's crazy. But they will point the finger at Sacramento--at the crazy tax system that makes them chase retail dollars and the political gridlock that keeps that system from being changed.

I agree that Sacramento is part of the problem. But I don't believe that Sacramento is going to be part of the solution.

And that is why I think we need to put our civic egos aside and start working together.

We live in a world where people don't trust big centralized government to solve problems. That is why Washington and Sacramento rarely solve problems anymore.

The emerging trend is for neighboring locals to get together, roll up their sleeves and tackle the problem themselves.

We saw this approach pay off recently when the disgruntled cities in the county library system worked together to revamp the library agency and make it more responsive to their needs--a scenario that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, when the centralized county government was stronger.

We can do the same thing with Sales Tax Canyon, and with lots of other problems in Ventura County that are bogged down by parochialism.

If we are really one subregional economy, why shouldn't we split the spoils equitably instead of fighting over them? And if there are legal impediments in Sacramento, I say we should come upwith the solution locally and then get Sacramento to respond legislatively. Those folks rarely balk when everybody is in favor of something.

If we acknowledge--as the library group did--that we have a common interest in solving a common problem, then we can begin to shed our civic egos enough to begin working together--and still hang on to our civic identities.

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