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Cityhood vs. annexation: Studies went horribly wrong

Our View

Posted: July 25, 2009 6:01 p.m.
Updated: July 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
"Informed choices."

That is what Supervisor Mike Antonovich says he wants for the people of West Ranch, Castaic and Tesoro del Valle.

That is not what they'll be making when they vote Nov. 3 unless a number of things change - and fast.

At issue is nothing less than the future governance of the communities immediately west and north of Santa Clarita city limits.

Do residents of those areas want to form their own city? Annex into the city of Santa Clarita? Or remain unincorporated hinterlands of a vast and far-flung Los Angeles County?

The debate is as old and nearly as acrimonious as the question of universal health care. As with health care issues, there are staunch advocates on all sides.

Two years ago, the quarrelers called a truce. Fighting was getting them nowhere.

Instead, they decided to study the matter scientifically and hire experts to help them decide whether they'd fare better as part of Santa Clarita, or whether crunching the numbers showed independent cityhood is financially feasible.

The studies are in - partly.

Sadly, the parts that have been completed are gibberish.

At Antonovich's urging, the county allocated $25,000 for the Castaic and West Ranch town councils to hire a consultant and weigh their options.

Not wanting to be shown up, the Santa Clarita City Council kicked in $25,000 under the auspices of making it a better and more thorough study.

One study turned into two (or three or four, depending on what you're counting), with a county-funded consultant working up the numbers on independent cityhood and a city-funded consultant analyzing annexation and laying out the three options.

If you've read this far and noted how many times we said "consultant," you can probably guess what happened.

The county sat on the project for nearly a year while it dealt with seemingly more important things, such as the possible incorporation of East Los Angeles.

Meantime, what was the city-funded consultant doing?

If you assumed these would be independent studies, think again.

The city-funded consultant had to wait for the county-funded consultant to finish his study so she could tier off of it - and then a whole ‘nother set of delays kicked in.

Two years later, the study on independent cityhood is in. A rough draft of the annexation study is in.

The "options" report is nowhere in sight.

The only thing evident from reading the cityhood and annexation studies is that neither consultant ever set foot in the Santa Clarita Valley.

The studies divide the communities into three "study areas." In a nutshell, here is what the studies say:

West Ranch. United, the communities of Sunset Pointe, Southern Oaks, Stevenson Ranch and Westridge would be fairly well off - if they include Magic Mountain and the Valencia Marketplace.

Trouble is, there is no guarantee that Magic Mountain or the Marketplace would agree to incorporation or annexation.

If you were here for the 1987 incorporation of Santa Clarita, you know that LAFCO - the agency that ultimately decides city boundaries - routinely bows to large landowners. If they want out, they're out.

That's why Santa Clarita was only 39.5 square miles in 1987, instead of the desired 90. (Had LAFCO approved the original Santa Clarita cityhood proposal, we wouldn't be having this discussion today.)

In years past, Magic Mountain wanted to remain in the unincorporated county, thank you very much. Last we heard, Magic Mountain has no opinion.

Perhaps the big amusement park is willing to consider incorporation or annexation because it would save millions if it could escape the utility users tax, which is imposed by the county but not the city.

As for the Marketplace, the studies used outdated financial information. Today, several big boxes in the Marketplace stand empty.
If the studies are apples-to-apples, that shouldn't matter. But it does matter.

The Newhall Land and Farming Company sold the Marketplace in the late 1990s. No longer is there a large corporate or governmental economic development effort to fill those boxes.

Left in the county or folded into a small, spanking-new westside city, those boxes could remain empty for years. (Note how Santa Clarita officials worked quickly to fill the empty Mervyn's space. That couldn't have happened 20 years ago because the city didn't yet have the expertise.)

Other comparisons aren't apples-to-apples. Just one example is per-capita parkland. The consultants compare usable parkland in Santa Clarita ("active" parkland such as ball fields and playgrounds) to all parkland in the unincorporated communities, regardless of whether it's usable.

Castaic. The studies say Castaic would be nearly revenue-neutral, meaning it would generate almost as much tax revenue as it needs to spend on public services.

Oh, really? The studies completely ignore Castaic's monumental infrastructure deficit - just like the one Santa Clarita inherited in 1987 after decades of county neglect.

Castaic needs roads and transit systems and a city hall and all sorts of things it wouldn't have the money to pay for - and without a tax surplus to pay back loans, it can't borrow the money from banks.

If Castaic forms a new city with West Ranch, then West Ranch can kiss any surplus goodbye. The surplus, if there actually is one, will have to be spent to bring Castaic up to par.

There is an even more blatant problem with the Castaic analysis, and it falls under the heading of ...

Tesoro. The studies say Tesoro would be a loser, primarily because of the exorbitant law enforcement costs there.

Say what? Unless something happens in the dark of night that we don't catch on the police scanner, we don't exactly think of this trendy suburban enclave as a bastion of crime.

And it isn't. Look deeper into the city-funded consultant's study and you see she's talking about the "law enforcement costs associated with inmate escapes and crimes."

That's right. These out-of-town consultants think the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center is part of Tesoro.

If you're done laughing now, we'll continue.

It's not the cost of housing 7,000-plus inmates that the communities would have to bear. It's the cost of sending squad cars and ambulances during emergencies.

The annexation study acknowledges that Pitchess and the surrounding undeveloped land are within the jurisdictional boundary of the Castaic Area Town Council - but it puts the jail in the Tesoro "study area" anyway.

Why?

Because the studies were manipulated from the word "go."

Read page 8 of the annexation study. It says, "The annexation study area boundaries were defined in consultation with West Ranch and Castaic Town Council representatives in 2007."

Follow the associated footnote and you see that the boundaries were set by two specific members of the West Ranch and Castaic town councils (one each).

Questions abound.

Why would the city fund a study whose scope was determined by two individuals on the West Ranch and Castaic town councils?

Well, remember: The city was hands-off. It spent $25,000 to help the West Ranch and Castaic town councils hire consultants and conduct their own studies and reach their own conclusions.

Why would these two town council members fudge the natural boundaries and shove Pitchess onto Tesoro? Was it to artificially justify the future incorporation of West Ranch and Castaic?

Why was nobody from Tesoro invited to participate in the boundary-setting? Was it a ploy to hinder the desire among leaders in Tesoro to annex into Santa Clarita?

Perhaps it was nothing so nefarious. Perhaps it was simple stupidity. We try to give people the benefit of the doubt. But this one is difficult.

A word to Tesoro homeowners: If your property values plummet because two county- and city-funded studies show you've got a jail in your backyard, don't point fingers at the city or county. Read page 8 and you'll know whom to thank.

What happens now?

Antonovich wants community meetings in September to discuss the "vital information" in these impossibly flawed studies so the West Ranch, Castaic and Tesoro communities can "make informed choices with regard to the future of their communities" in a nonbinding advisory vote Nov. 3.

Can the studies be repaired in time for our north- and westside residents to have meaningful information in September? We'd like to hope so, but considering the delays in getting this far, and the fact that the "options report" isn't even done, it's unlikely.

Truth be told, the studies are so fundamentally botched, the town councils need to start from scratch.

For the people in Stevenson Ranch who've waited 20 years to be part of a city, and for Castaic residents who've waited even longer for better government, that is a shame.

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