By PETE GOLIS
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat
People in Windsor were both smart and lucky.
When the city incorporated in 1992, its leaders decided it would be wise to contract with the Sheriff’s Office rather than take on the burgeoning costs of a stand-alone police department. History has confirmed that judgment.
City status for Windsor also came too late for the rush of developer-financed improvements popular in the 1970s and 1980s — an explosion of swimming pools, parks, community centers and other facilities that were the pride of many cities.
What seemed like bad timing turns out to be the opposite. While Windsor has managed to avoid the hardest hits, including layoffs, many cities now face painful decisions to shutter or even sell popular community assets because they can no longer afford the overhead.
There is an object lesson here. Like it or not, what’s happening in the world economy and here at home isn’t cyclical. Economies are changing. Government will be smaller.
Political leaders are left to choose: They can curse the fates, or they can work to reinvent government in ways that serve the public interest.
At this turning point, we don’t lack for government. What we lack are political institutions that make sense in the 21st century.
A friend newly arrived in Sonoma County once expressed bewilderment at a single ballot with five separate school elections. He was voting for an elementary school board, a high school board, a community college board, a county board of education and a county superintendent of schools.
This is before accounting for nine city governments, a county government, fire districts, resource conservation districts, water districts, sanitation districts, parks districts, ambulance districts, mosquito control districts and more — plus countless federal, state and regional agencies with local offices.
We are left with questions, such as:
• Does Sonoma County need eight separate police agencies (or nine planning departments or 10 building departments or 10 parks departments)?
• Does the county require 40 school districts? Or a separate Office of Education, complete with an elected board and an elected superintendent?
• Does California need an alphabet soup of agencies that perform the same tasks (except when they are working at cross purposes)?
Some will ask, is all this government necessary?
But the real questions are: In a changed world, how much government can we afford? And, how can government be reinvented in ways that reduce redundancies and protect critical services?
A version of this conversation will play out in Sacramento this week as the new/old governor, Jerry Brown, begins to explain how he would right a ship on the verge of sinking. His budget proposals will prove shocking to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to what Brown calls the “delay and denial” that have guided state spending over the past decade.
Brown wants to begin “a complex reordering” of state and local government, which means he wants local government to do more and state government to do less.
If local officials are clutching their wallets, it’s because they’ve seen versions of this act before. In the past, when state government was feeling pinched, it found ways to dump the budget burden on cities and counties.
But this time feels different. Brown seems to recognize, according to county officials who met with him, that California faces a fundamental reckoning about the size and shape of government.
When the governor releases his proposed 2011-12 budget later this week, we will begin to know whether he’s up to the task. His sincerity will be judged by his willingness to restructure a bloated state government and help local government pay for its new responsibilities.
Many have noted the irony. Proposition 13 mandated a wholesale transfer of political power from local to state government, and who was governor when it passed? Jerry Brown, of course.
In the intervening 32 years, California has written the book on how to design a government to fail. From ballot-box budgeting to term limits to a joke we call the tax code, we haven’t missed many opportunities to make it worse.
Now we come full circle with a new governor with a simple message: Government is broke and broken — and we don’t have any choice but to fix it.
In recent years, some local agencies have made small steps. In the west county, small school districts now share the cost of services. Fire districts consolidated. The city of Sonoma eliminated its police force and contracted with the Sheriff’s Office. County government combined departments. Only last week, Cotati and Sebastopol announced plans to share the cost of a building official.
It’s only the beginning.
In Sonoma County, the usual suspects will have to check their calendars and discover we’re in the 21st century now.
It’s nice they can excite their passions over traffic circles on Humboldt Street, but it would be nicer still if they could get excited about creating an efficient hometown government that doesn’t stagger from one budget crisis to the next.
Voters like you and me will have to grow up as well. We can’t keep pretending we can have lower taxes and more government services at the same time. We can’t let passion for a single issue blind us to the realities of a world turned upside-down by technology and globalization.
If you don’t want to talk about creating a 21st century government, that’s OK. Just don’t be surprised if California continues its drift toward mediocrity.