State Budget Woes Could Put Planning in Focus
In anticipation of another raid on local government revenues by the State of California, local government officials have taken a page from grass-roots planning advocates and filed for two versions of initiatives for the state's November 2002 ballot. The "Local Revenue Accountability Act" is spearheaded by the state's leading city, county, and special district advocacy organizations – whose members are the largest employers of urban planners in California.
The strategy is a crapshoot for the future of publicly-funded planning. The initiative campaign might unintentionally push the public to focus further on the most essential services. And the campaign might further damage the already poor fiscal relationship between state and local government.
The move is prompted by fear of a redoubling of the property tax shift implemented by the Wilson administration beginning in 1992. Those changes — the result of a recession that brought to bear the full wrath of Proposition 13 funding shortfalls — resulted in permanent shifts of $4 billion annually from local governments to school districts, resulting in a net gain in the state's own general fund by alleviating its school funding responsibilities. The state dubbed the action "ERAF," or the educational revenue augmentation fund. The name seized on public support for education spending. The victims were local government programs, including land use planning.
The state's current budget problems are as dire as they were 10 years ago. According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, the state's budgeted expenditures for 2001-02 will exceed anticipated revenues by $4.5 billion, and the potential shortfall for 2002-03 is $12.4 billion. Therefore, a new raid on local property taxes, vehicle license fees and even sales taxes is likely.
While local governments are mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore, things have changed in 10 years time. Among the important changes is the institutionalization of concern for public schools. For example, since ERAF, voters have approved a constitutional amendment making it easier for school bonds to pass. It is clear that education has moved near the top of everyone's "what I want the government to do with our money" list.
Facing such sentiment, local government plans to pitch arguments for another service that is seen as essential: public safety. Of any local government-provided service, it is likely that police and fire protection — especially in the wake of the September 11 — could best compete with education in a ballot fight between competing government needs.
The other trend that has solidified is the use of ballot-box planning itself. Ironically, a majority of public sector planners, the American Planning Association, and some academics have shunned ballot-box planning as a miscarriage of the process, seeing planning as a legitimate public interest best controlled by professionals and elected officials. Nevertheless, in many California jurisdictions, the ballot box has become a focal point for important planning decisions — a fact not lost on the local government associations. In crafting the ballot measures, cities and counties are acknowledging that if you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em. And the enlistment of public service unions will be an important part of the political strategy.
Public planners have much at stake. Depending on the jurisdiction, the ERAF tax shifts resulted in serious revenue losses for planning departments. Then, as now, planning departments were not the highest priorities for most municipal finance directors and local government decision-makers. At the state level, the entire housing element update cycle was suspended and the push for regionalism evaporated. At the local level, it is unclear how many internal planning efforts were "defunded" by municipal money managers. But, clearly, planning staffs were furloughed across the state, with some jurisdictions eliminating one-third or more of their planners (see CP&DR, August 1992).
Santa Maria City Manager Tim Ness said ERAF remains a burden for his central coast city. "In 1990, we adopted a budget with 351 employees. In 2000, we adopted a budget with the exact same number of employees – 351 – even though our population had grown from 61,000 to 80,000," he said. During the early 1990s, The city reduced expenses by requiring employees to take unpaid leave and by reopening contracts with unions. Because the ERAF diversions have never been restored, "the current annual shift represents a $1.1 million dollar hole in our revenue stream," Ness said.
Ness sees any potential new raid focusing on Vehicle License Fees, or VLF. That concerns the city manager because — at $3.8 million — the fees represent Santa Maria's second largest source of revenue. During 1999 and 2000, the first two years of the 35% VLF cut enjoyed by vehicle owners, revenues lost to local governments were "backfilled" from the state's budget surplus. But now that black has turned to red in Sacramento, the state will probably discontinue the backfill. And the state may even decide to take another 30% of the VLF from locals because constitutionally, only one-third of the levy must be remitted to local government. In such a scenario, Santa Maria would be hit with a $2.5 million dollar loss, a blow Ness described as "unsustainable." Ness acknowledged that even if the VLF — or ERAF II — issues are resolved, "the fiscal relationship between state and local government is seriously broken."
Ultimately, local governments' ballot-box tactics will likely result in some dialog between the state and its local governments. But the ultimate fate of local planning department funding remains a lingering question. The public may no longer expect to have its cake and eat it too. Ironically, in carrying fiscal issues to the voters, local governments may inadvertently end up making the case for the service seen as most essential: public safety. And that may leave other functions — like planning — more vulnerable than ever.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.