At the rate things are going, cities in California might not just be broke -- they might become an endangered species. This month, a grand jury recommended that governance of the tiny city of Maricopa be turned over to the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Once the center of the petroleum industry at the southwestern end of the Central Valley and the home of the famous Lakeview gusher, Maricopa – located about 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield -- has declined the recent decades of its 100-year history. Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson said that centralization in the oil industry cut down on employment in the area, and many of the remaining oil field workers live in larger towns such as nearby Taft.
"I'm not at all surprised," said Watson. "Maricopa has lost population in the last few years due to the way the oil industry is managed."
With a population of 1,154--down from a historic high of 20,000 during the peak of the region's oil boom--Maricopa is now the smallest city in Kern County. Of California's 481 cities, only 12 have smaller populations than Maricopa – most of them in rural areas in the far northern part of the state.
If Maricopa ceases to exist as a legal entity, it would be just the third such city to do so in modern California history. It might even be the fourth, depending on whether legislation to force disincorporation of the City of Vernon goes through.
The Cities and Joint Powers Grand Jury conducted an investigation into Maricopa's municipal health and published troubling findings in its report "City of Maricopa: Lots of Past, Any Future?" The report judges the city on its ability to provide basic services such as police, fire, and sanitation services that, under California law, all incorporated cities must provide. The grand jury concluded that "with a crumbling infrastructure, the financial resources of the city are insufficient to cover current needs let alone retire outstanding debts."
Those debts include over $61,000 owed to the county for fire protection and over $100,000 owed to the Local Agency Investment Fund for monies the city borrowed for street repairs but that were diverted to "ordinary expenses." The report also accuses the city of borrowing from private individuals in order to meet some of its payroll and even for keeping cash "in an unsecured desk."
The report also suggests that the city has neither the political will nor the administrative competency to pay its debts or restructure its governance. The report carries a vitriolic tone, noting that investigators were met with "delays and excuses" from many city officials.
No member of the Maricopa City Council responded to interview requests for this story. Interim City Administrator Laura Robison declined to comment, except to say that "the City of Maricopa is working on their response, and will be addressing the recommendations at a future council meeting."
The report acknowledges that the prospect of disincorporation might be "distasteful" but necessary in light of the city's dire situation. However, it is the citizens of Maricopa that will have to decide whether disincorporation is more, or less, distasteful than carrying over $200,000 worth of debt.
If Maricopa disincorporates, Kern County will automatically assume responsibility for what remains of the town. County officials are not taking a position on disincorporation but say that they stand ready.
"If they decide to cut their losses and disincorporate, then the county is prepared to assume those services," said Watson. "That's our job."
In most years, the potential disincorporation of a city would be not only distasteful but, in fact, unheard-of. This year, however, Maricopa is the second city to flirt with oblivion.
Since the original 1963 passage of what is now known as the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act, which governs municipal incorporations, only two cities have suffered that fate: Cabazon in 1972, and Hornitos in 1973, both of which were small hamlets that withered.
The possible demise of Maricopa comes amid a raucous debate over the fate of the City of Vernon, an industrial enclave east of downtown Los Angeles (see CP&DR Vol. 26, No. 5, March 2011). The Legislature is currently deliberating on a bill that would forcibly dissolve the Vernon city government, which has been accused of corruption. The bill that would fell Vernon would have no bearing on Maricopa because that bill, AB 46, is directed at all cities with populations less than 150 because, by law, the Legislature could not deliberately single out a city. (Vernon is the only city in the state with a population of less than 150, though the similar city of Industry has 219.)
Therefore, if Maricopa is to disincorporation, it must do so by the will of its own voters. Watson said that they are unlikely to do so.
"The people that live out there have a lot of pride in their community," said Watson. "It's a historic place. They are reluctant to give up that local control they feel they have."
Then again, noted Watson, "when you don't have the financial capability, you don't have the control either."
If residents did choose disincorporation, that vote would trigger a formal process administered by the Kern County Local Agency Formation Commission. LAFCO would have to make its own findings regardless of the residents' vote and the grand jury's findings.
"We would have to follow our regular process because it's considered a reorganization," said Rebecca Moore, executive officer of Kern County LAFCO. Moore suggested that the remains of Mariposa could be governed by a special district that would take over city services.
Ironically, the cost of the LAFCO process might rival the amount of Maricopa's debt.
"It would be expensive," said Moore. "There would have to be an environmental report done."
Watson said that he does not expect this trend--such as it is--to spread.
"There are many cities throughout the state of California that are having financial problems," said Watson. "I think the unique thing about Maricopa is that they just have a very small population base."
Contacts & Resources:
Rebecca Moore, Executive Officer, Kern County Local Agency Formation Commission, 661.716.1076
Ray Watson, Supervisor, Kern County 4th District, 661.868.3680