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San Diego County on Best-Run List

Survey: Orange County, which emerged from 1995 bankruptcy, also places high in the national rankings. Los Angeles County earns a grade of C.

January 29, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego County is the best managed of California's nine largest counties, with Orange County--bankrupt seven years ago--coming in second, according to the first national study of county government management.

The review by the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and Governing magazine analyzed the 40 largest counties in the U.S. by geographic region, based on annual revenue.

Within California, San Diego County earned a B-plus, a grade beaten by only two others nationally: Maricopa County, Ariz., and Fairfax County, Va., which received A-minuses.

Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, credited the privatization of certain county services, the sale of a money-losing landfill, multiyear contracts for employees and an incentive-pay system for employees with improving the county's fiscal health.

"If this had been five or six years ago, we'd probably have been near the bottom of that list," Roberts said. "It's been a real transformation and I'm glad other people are recognizing it."

Los Angeles County, the largest county in population and size, earned a C.

Orange County's B grade was a turnaround that stunned even the study's authors.

"I was startled because, frankly, prior to our beginning this, I had assumed that they'd look terrible," said Richard Greene, special projects editor at Washington-based Governing magazine.

He attributed the successful score to the bankruptcy sending a "wake-up call to the entire county" to change its way of doing business.

"There's a truism that we've discovered from a variety of levels of government, that there's nothing like a big financial disaster to improve management," he said.

Orange County's investment pool lost $1.6 billion in December 1994 from risky bets by then-Treasurer Robert L. Citron, who served a year in jail. Since then, all of the county's top managers have been replaced or left, including the auditor, treasurer-tax collector and the Board of Supervisors.

The study analyzed five areas: financial management, human resources, information technology, capital management and "managing for results."

Those considered the strongest counties had strategic planning and a decentralized governing system that rewarded flexibility and innovation.

In San Diego, Roberts said the county's system of paying higher salaries for top-performing employees has helped provide a higher quality of service to the public. "It's a whole new attitude," he said.

San Diego Supervisor Dianne Jacob said the board "has run San Diego County like a business and it has paid off. It's been a long haul; we had to be both bold and disciplined."

She noted two innovations: competition among private companies to provide public services, and a budgeting procedure that sets aside money received on a one-time basis for specific projects rather than for continuing costs.

The rankings are a useful gauge of how effectively counties are doing their job, particularly during a slowing economy, said Dale Jones, director of the Government Performance Project, a multiyear analysis funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Most people don't realize how important county governments are to their daily lives," he said. "But the fact is, they're becoming more important players in American government with each passing year."

Counties are often invisible entities that get scant respect, said Peter Harkness, editor and publisher of Governing.

"They have little say in the delivery of services they're responsible for, they get squeezed from both sides on funding, and they take the heat for city, county and even state elected officials," he said. "It's a frustrating dilemma and the grades reflect it."

Counties in the Western states are responsible for managing a larger slice of government services, the study found.

In California, counties handle such vast responsibilities as law enforcement, fire protection, health care, welfare and other social services. They handled annual budgets ranging from $1.3 billion for Contra Costa to $16 billion for Los Angeles.

But California counties have been hit hard financially in the past decade, with state government diverting a larger slice of funds traditionally sent to the local level.

"For all of the California counties, if they [were located] in another state, they'd be doing better because of what the state has done to them financially," Greene said.

The largest county studied, Los Angeles County, ranked about average in every category except capital management. There, the county earned a D-plus; the average was B-minus. What pulled the county down, Greene said, was an incomplete inventory of county buildings and assets, and not knowing what maintenance needs were--even if the money wasn't immediately available.

"I think it's just wrong," Los Angeles County Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen said of the data showing Los Angeles woefully behind in capital maintenance. "That's where we've been putting all of our surpluses--in maintenance and capital."

He said Los Angeles has spent more than $100 million a year on maintenance and capital improvements in an effort to make up for years of neglect in the lean, late 1980s and early 1990s.

Los Angeles County supervisors hired Janssen as chief administrative officer on the strength of his success as a budget reformer when he held the same position in San Diego County.

Among other California counties, Contra Costa earned a B-minus, while four counties ranked C-plus: Alameda, Riverside, Sacramento and Santa Clara. San Bernardino County received a C-minus. The lowest-scoring county, Nassau in New York, got a D-minus.

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Times staff writers Tony Perry in San Diego and Evelyn Larrubia in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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A complete ranking of the counties can be found at www.maxwell .syr.edu/gpp or www.governing .com.

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