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Aliso Viejo Celebrates Its First Year

Cities: The county's newest municipality weathers budget woes, El Toro airport concerns. It now seeks new sources of income.


No longer facing financial disaster or an international airport in its backyard, Aliso Viejo on Monday celebrated its first year of cityhood. In an evening ceremony, city officials put up a flagpole, unveiled the city logo--bright yellow with images of city landmarks and "AV" in script--and breathed a sigh of relief.

Only months after the South County community of more than 40,000 residents was incorporated, Aliso Viejo had to deal with fallout from the state budget crisis. Last fall, as lawmakers in Sacramento grappled with an expanding deficit, they discussed reducing the share of vehicle tax revenue that cities receive.

For new municipalities, that category represents nearly 50% of the budget. Aliso Viejo would have lost nearly half of its $6.9-million operating fund. City officials said that kind of drastic cut would have required tough choices, such as whether to continue financing sheriff's services and the fight against an airport at the closed El Toro Marine base.

As it turned out, the city took in $10 million, leaving a $2.8-million budget surplus.

"We were concerned," Mayor Pro Tem Cynthia Pickett said. "But we were smart about it. We formed a coalition with other newly incorporated cities, and we lobbied the state Legislature, impressing upon them we've got to protect those local services."

In recent weeks, state lawmakers decided to raise Department of Motor Vehicle fees instead of leaning on cities.

As for the airport, Orange County voters in March rejected the idea of an airport at El Toro, preferring a park for the property.

Pickett said the airport issue resonated with residents much more than the budget crisis.

City Manager William Woollett said that fight helped to unite residents.

"Sometimes what you really need is a good war," Woollett said. "We feel we have more impact as a separate city than 40,000 people who live in an unincorporated area."

When voters approved incorporation on March 6, 2001, Aliso Viejo became Orange County's 34th city and Southern California's newest. With relatively low housing costs and a median age of 29, the ethnically diverse community has been a magnet for first-time home buyers since the mid-1980s.

The incorporation--approved by 93% of the community's voters--took effect July 1, 2001, after a two-year campaign.

The cityhood drive had cleared a major hurdle in mid-2000 when a state annexation agency approved the master-planned community's cityhood bid.

It also capped an era of rapid incorporation that saw eight Orange County cities form in 13 years.

While the city celebrated its birthday on Monday, officials weren't quite ready to celebrate an El Toro victory.

"There are still lawsuits looming," Pickett said. "Until Irvine annexes that land, you still have to be wary."

But with that issue having moved to the back burner, officials are focusing on attracting revenue sources such as hotels and retail centers.

Officials had hoped that a hotel would be built alongside the Aliso Viejo Golf Course, but those plans did not materialize.

"The golf course has not given us the revenue that was projected," Mayor Carmen L. Vali said.

"With no clubhouse, we're not able to do as many events. And without a hotel and conference center, you're not getting the corporate golf crowd."

Having met the early challenges, city officials are upbeat.

"We were proactive in addressing both of those issues," Pickett said of the budget shortfall and the airport. "I think maybe we averted the crisis by thinking ahead."

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