La Jolla Cityhood Forum: Breaking up with San Diego hard to do … but not impossible
La Jolla by the numbers
■ Estimated sales tax for 2011: $4,539,287 (Figures from the City’s Development Services Department are based on a geographical area created for La Jolla by the City in 1990)
Estimated La Jolla property taxes (fiscal year 2012-13)
■ La Jolla commercial property tax: $18,641,055
■ La Jolla residential property tax: $151,598,304
■ Percent of property taxes Coronado retains: 25
■ 2011 transient occupancy (hotel) tax: $12,332,999
■ Total estimated La Jolla tax base: $187,111,645
Sources: San Diego Independent Budget Analyst, San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector
■ Website: independentlajolla.org
By Pat Sherman
More than 30 people attended an informational forum last week hosted by Independent La Jolla (ILJ), the group working to see La Jolla become its own city, as opposed to its current structure as a village within the City of San Diego.
ILJ, which has waxed and waned in its membership and enthusiasm through the decades, is hoping to regain momentum and raise an initial $400,000 to pay for studies, maps, petitions and filing fees required by the state to become a city.
Since the issue would go before voters in both La Jolla and greater San Diego, additional promotional money is needed to convince voters that the separation would be good for both La Jolla and San Diego.
The forum, held Oct. 17 at the Riford branch of the San Diego Public Library, began with a presentation by Coronado Mayor Casey Tanaka.
In 1890, Coronado became the first community to break away from a city in California history.
“It was largely because our people were afraid that San Diego would not be as vested in fighting our fires as we would,” Tanaka said. “You know, how do you get a fire truck across the Bay with no bridge? We were pretty sure that we were more committed to the enterprise than they were.”
However, Tanaka said, “I think in 1890 the bureaucracy was easier to deal with.”
Despite the bureaucratic hurdles La Jollans would face in their quest to form a city, Tanaka encouraged residents to give it a shot, extolling what he views as the potential fiscal and administrative benefits of cityhood.
“I think the larger an organization, the harder it is to manage,” he said. “Coronado is manageable.”
Given San Diego’s civic structure, the City Council representative for District 1 is the only one directly accountable to La Jollans, Tanka said. Coronado’s mayor and four council representatives are elected at-large, and represent the city’s interests as a whole.
“You shouldn’t rely on just one person,” Tanaka said, noting that both the San Diego Unified School District and the City of San Diego are split into smaller districts to make them more manageable.
“It is more efficient, and perhaps smarter, to simply have your own group — a group that answers to you,” he said. “Your identity is maintained, your values are maintained and the people who are governing on your behalf really are cut from your own cloth.”
Though La Jolla has a larger population (about 44,000) than Coronado (about 25,000), Tanaka said La Jolla and Coronado are “very similar” in their affluence and sense of history and identity.
“In Coronado we’re all islanders; we all identify with the same features as a community,” he said. “I think that being your own city certainly allows you to cultivate that.”
However, Tanaka cautioned, becoming a city comes at a high price. Fees akin to alimony payments must be paid to San Diego for a period of time.
“They’re not going to let you do it for free,” he said. “Can you afford whatever the ransom is that they’re going to make you pay for that independence?”
Though Independent La Jolla hired a Berkeley company to conduct a financial feasibility study on La Jolla becoming its own city (as required by state law), according to ILJ President Cindy Greatrex, it took the City of San Diego three years to provide the figures needed to complete the study.
“The numbers simply aged out,” she said, noting that money for a new feasibility study is now required.
The last study showed that the area roughly defined as La Jolla within the 92037 ZIP code showed a surplus in tax revenue of about $1.8 million.
Tanaka said Coronado’s operating budget is about $38 million. Its surplus this year was between $2-$3 million, down from $3-$5 million prior to the recession.
“I assume your tax base is similar and I think the potential is there for you (to incorporate),” he said, “but you’re going to have to look at your numbers. If you really are going to have a chance to be independent, you’re going to have to be financially independent.”
Michael Ott, director of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the group that oversees land annexation in the state of California, provided information about the secession process, which the state technically refers to as a “special reorganization.”
Ott began with a sobering fact. The last time a California community was successful in its attempt to break away from a city was Monterey Park, in 1916.
“That is somewhat intentional,” Ott said. “California has been a growth-oriented state ever since the Gold Rush. … All of the laws favor expansion of municipalities, not division of them.”
An attempt by the residents of San Ysidro to break away from San Diego in 1973 was unsuccessful, despite LAFCO’s approval, Ott said. Coronado remains the only community to successfully secede from San Diego. It is much easier for an unincorporated portion of a county to become its own city, as happened with Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas, Ott said.
For La Jolla to become its own city, the action must be approved by LAFCO, as well as a simple majority of voters in both La Jolla and the City of San Diego.
Ott said he is optimistic about La Jolla’s chances to achieve the numbers required for cityhood.
“I think there’s a good chance that La Jolla would be able to achieve financial feasibility … but the big question would be the alimony payment,” he said.
Incorporating as a city would require “revenue neutrality,” he said, meaning that there would be no longterm fiscal impact on the City of San Diego.
La Jolla’s secession would also require an environmental impact study, he said.
Another issue broached during the forum was whether the proposed ‘City of La Jolla’ would create its own police, emergency response and fire departments, or contract those services out with another municipality or agency.
Tanaka said newly formed cities can benefit from economies of scale by creating or joining what is known as a Joint Powers Authority (JPA), a agency operated collectively by two or more local governments that offer services such as fire protection or emergency dispatch services.
Coronado is one of about a dozen municipal members of a fire dispatch JPA, he said.
“Coronado’s assessment for fire dispatching I think is about $65,000 or $70,000,” Tanaka said. “Think about how many employees you could hire for that amount? Not even one. By sharing the cost of running a dispatch center, we’ve kept our costs down tremendously.”
Coronado maintains two fire stations and one police station, Tanaka said. Its streets are repaved every six or seven years. “In San Diego … it’s such a big organization that you have bigger fish to fry — and regrettably, something as fundamental as your streets and sidewalks” are being neglected, he said.
“However much money you have is going to determine what kind of services you’re going to have,” Tanaka added, noting that La Jollans might reconsider cityhood “if you find out that you only have enough money to call yourself a city and that you’re going to have to contract out a lot of the services or you don’t have the wherewithal to do some of things (aligned with your vision).”
Bird Rock resident Joe LaCava suggested La Jolla “sweeten the pot” and offer the city additional alimony to make secession more palatable. Another audience member suggested La Jolla let San Diego keep the Golden Triangle area as part of the deal.
“What we’re looking for is somebody with $2 million who wants to have on their gravesite or on city hall that they are the founders of the City of La Jolla,” said ILJ founding member and vice president Melinda Merryweather.
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