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Secession--a Risk for All

April 06, 2002

Think of San Fernando Valley secession as surgery to separate twins conjoined at the chest--not impossible but not without risk to either a new Valley city or what would be left of Los Angeles.

State Controller Kathleen Connell used that metaphor Monday after releasing her audit of the Valley and harbor area secession proposals. It's the most useful analogy we've heard for what Los Angeles voters will, in all likelihood, be asked to decide in November.

According to Connell, the main risk to the proposed Valley city is that it may lack enough money to function well. California cities similar in size to the 1.4-million-resident Valley typically set aside about 4% of their budgets for unexpected expenses and emergencies. The private consultants who prepared the secession proposal allowed for just over 1%, tops, and Connell's audit found miscalculations elsewhere that would wipe out those cash reserves.

Moreover, the consultants were "fundamentally mistaken" in predicting that future reserves would grow steadily, Connell said, adding, "Any change in the economic climate could render that city financially without any reserves or without any resources to provide the level of services that I would imagine the Valley residents would be expecting."

Secession backers tout a more efficient government that would offer better services for less money. But the proposal Connell reviewed doesn't give a new city many opportunities to innovate, at least for the first few years. It calls for Los Angeles to continue providing all services through a three-year transition period and allocates virtually all of the new city's budget to pay for those services. Cutting services is the only way we can see for a Valley city to achieve savings.

Which brings us back to the conjoined twins and the risk that separation poses to Los Angeles. The state requires that for three years secession not financially hurt what remains of Los Angeles. To meet that requirement the consultants came up with the three-year transition: The Valley would continue to pay for all the same services. But Connell's audit, by exposing the would-be Valley city's cash reserve problem, shows just how fragile that promise is.

Money is the lifeblood of any city, and during the three-year-long secession operation these twins would still share a circulation system. "Any cuts on one side," said Connell, "affect revenues on the other side."

As for what happens after three years, secession advocates, reasonably enough, want their city to start providing its own services or contract with the county. The report the consultants wrote did not have to address what would happen then, but the separation's impact on L.A. could be severe, Connell said.

A second audit found that a proposed breakaway city in the harbor area would not bring in enough revenues to pay for even basic fire and police protection, a shortcoming that might well kill that secession effort. But nothing Connell found is likely to keep a Valley measure off the ballot. Indeed, the operation she describes could well succeed. But before voters wield the scalpel, they need to know that this surgery would be extraordinarily complex and that full recovery could take years, during which new risks would emerge for the old city and the new. Secession advocates call this fear-mongering. We call it informed consent.

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