We need an extinction event

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From City Halls to school district boardrooms, local governments are feeling the economic heat of the pandemic shutdown. Service cuts and layoffs have already started in some areas. Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews says there could be a silver lining to the hardship that’s coming: consolidation of local governmental entities in California. Right now, Mathews says there are too many, which dilutes their power, wastes resources and leaves us unprepared for major catastrophes like the one we’re facing with the coronavirus.

Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below:

We need an extinction event

California is finally getting the local government apocalypse it needs.

For the record, I love local government. In most places, it’s the most democratic level of government, and it deserves to be the most powerful and best-funded.

But in California, local governments are too weak and small to be effective. Why? There are simply too many of them. That’s why I have long pined publicly for an “extinction event” to  kill off thousands of California local governments. Now COVID-19 may fulfill my awful wish.

Heartless as it may seem, the only way to save local government in California is to eliminate local governments.

Our ship of state is barnacled with governments. We have hundreds of state agencies, 58 counties, 482 cities, 1037 school districts, 73 community college districts, and nearly 5,000 special districts, governing everything from mosquitoes to cemeteries.

Taken together, all these governments resemble San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, with an incoherent design and an overabundance of rooms that produce feelings of futility.

Citizens are represented by so many different governments that neither they, nor our shrinking media, can monitor them. With so little scrutiny, our local governments routinely produce corruption, fiscal disasters, and unsustainable retirement benefits. And instead of solving regional problems like transportation or housing, our myriad local governments get in each other’s way.

The public distrust has led Californians to limit the powers of local officials—especially the power to tax, via Prop 13 and related measures. Those limits have made our local governments some of America’s weakest—and centralized California power at the state level.  COVID-19 deepens this dysfunctional dynamic. Our local governments lack the resources or expertise to decide how to respond to the crisis by themselves; Sacramento makes the big decisions.

And with financial support slow in arriving from the federal government, local governments are already cutting services and laying off employees.

In all this pain lies great possibility. The local apocalypse is so big that every local government may need a bailout. But there are simply too many governments, and too little money, to save them all. In this moment, we must two enormous changes in our local governments.

First, we need fewer governments—that’s the extinction. Second, we must make remaining local governments more powerful and resilient, so they can solve our many regional problems in good times, and hold up in future crises.

Let’s start by allowing California citizens to establish regional councils with power to consolidate our local governments. They could fold our thousands of special districts into existing city and county governments. Fiscally weak local governments could be merged into stronger ones. It also would make sense to combine contiguous counties, cities, and school districts.

My home county of Los Angeles, with 88 cities, is ripe for this. Do we really need both an El Monte and a South El Monte, a Covina and a West Covina? Artesia, Cerritos, and Hawaiian Gardens already share school district—why not a City Hall?

To avoid having newly combined cities become larger versions of our current local weaklings, consolidation must be accompanied by restoring local government power—above all, the power for local officials to tax as they see fit. Such power would lead to better services, more stable public employment, and stronger regional cooperation on transportation, public health, economic development—and disaster response.

Stronger local governments would be more democratic and accountable—there is more incentive for watchdogs to emerge when governments can reach deeper into our wallets. These newly consolidated governments also could close outdated programs, and do better with technology.

“If we were starting from scratch today,” former Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole told the Planning Report, “we would design a government that looked more like the iPhone than the rotary phone.”

One blessing of this pandemic is the opportunity to redesign our nation-state. The local apocalypse is here—like it or not. Let’s make the most of it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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