June 23, 2008

Cutting Rossmoor Loose

By John Canalis

It may be landlocked, but Orange County considers Rossmoor an "island."

That is because the 50-year-old subdivision of ribboned roads, rambling ranch houses and enviable schools is not a city, but an unincorporated area that receives core services from the county seat in Santa Ana and a tiny on-site agency with a few employees.

County politicians want to get out of delivering many day-to-day services to Rossmoor and areas like it to reduce costs and focus on regional government instead.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is expected to place a measure on the Nov. 4 election ballot that will ask Rossmoor's 7,000 or so registered voters if they want to form a city.

"I doubt there will be any discussion," Supervisor John Moorlach, whose territory includes Rossmoor, said of the meeting. "This is ministerial."

The ballot measure has stated support from a board majority.

Moorlach and two other supervisors serve on the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, which on May 22 agreed to push the issue toward the voters after a study suggested that a Rossmoor city is financially viable with a utility tax of 7 or 9 percent, a share of vehicle license fees from the state and a sliver of sales tax revenue from a tiny retail base on the corner of Los Alamitos Boulevard and Katella Avenue.

"I am seeing that the majority support the idea," Moorlach said of Rossmoor residents. "There is a vocal minority that are longtime residents, so the need for change is not apparent to them. It's always been this way. The argument is, 'If it isn't broke, why fix it?"'

Longtime resident Jim Alexander has made that very argument.

"You've been over here," Alexander said. "You drive around. Do you find this place in a shambles? It's great."

Some prefer status quo

His grass-roots campaign against incorporating boils down to this: "If you're not displeased with what we have, then vote no."

Alexander suggests that the county is abandoning a commitment to Rossmoor, an upscale tract of 1.5 square miles wedged between Los Alamitos, Long Beach and Seal Beach.

"This is a foster parent who does not want that stepchild around them," he said.

Though the move to get out of providing services to unincorporated areas began in earnest after the Orange County bankruptcy in 1994, an expected shortfall in property taxes caused by the decline in real estate valuations is putting more pressure on the county.

"They've been making money off us for a long time," Alexander said. "Until the bankruptcy came around, they were reaping about a $500,000 benefit off of our taxpayers. Now they're saying, 'It's costing us money to do things for you.' "

Moorlach said he must deal with the present state of Orange County government, one that needs to shrink, and eliminating county islands is one way to achieve that goal.

"The problem is somebody's been subsidizing them, and they've been saying, 'We enjoy this entitlement, why give it up?"' Moorlach said. "If you're going to be subsidized, I am not doing my fiduciary duty for the other taxpayers in the county."

Rossmoor, by most measures, is a wealthy community. The median home price - a moving target these days - is about $900,000 and the median income is a hair under $100,000 and double the statewide average.

The difference between what Rossmoor residents pay in taxes and what they receive back in services is about $590,000, said Henry Taboada, the Rossmoor Community Services District's general manager.

"There is certainly a mandate from the county to get itself out of municipal services," said Taboada, who runs Rossmoor as an independent contractor.

Taboada, who previously served as city manager in Long Beach and interim city manager in Los Alamitos, said the incorporation drive gained momentum when a consultant determined it was financially possible for Rossmoor to become a city if residents were willing to tax themselves.

Projections were made 10 years out, Taboada said, and it looked like a Rossmoor city could make it even when applying conservative forecasting.

Utilizing available revenue, such as a portion of property and sales taxes, car fees and a utility tax, would give Rossmoor projected revenues of $4.9 million its first year against expenses of nearly $4.5 million, Taboada said.

The difference between the two utility tax proposals, 7percent or 9 percent, would mean about $226,000.

"That doesn't really effect the outcome," Taboada said.

The Rossmoor Community Services District spends $1million in an annual budget that covers street sweeping and lighting, parks and recreation and tree-trimming.

County services provided to Rossmoor include animal control, law and code enforcement and building permits.

There are the equivalent of about four or five full-time positions in the district now. It would take about 10 or 11 full- time employees, as well as independent contractors and consultants, such as municipal attorneys and engineers, to run a city.

A new City Council, which would be chosen on the same ballot with incorporation and the utility tax, would decide on contracting for city services, including law enforcement, which is currently handled by the Sheriff's Department, and animal control.

The Orange County Fire Department - Rossmoor is in an established fire district - would continue providing protection.

Though Rossmoor only has about 10,000 residents living in about 3,500 homes and a smattering of condominiums, there is precedence in Orange County to form cities that size with limited sources of income, such as sales taxes. Villa Park, a hamlet of 6,500, is the county's smallest city and, one of its wealthiest, and manages to survive with few revenue sources.

In Los Angeles County, tiny La Habra Heights, near La Mirada and Whittier, is in a similar situation.

Other Rossmoor options

Polling in Rossmoor found that after 50 years of relative independence, residents preferred remaining unincorporated or cityhood to annexation with Seal Beach or Los Alamitos.

Eric Christenesen, a member of the Rossmoor Homeowners Association who supports cityhood, said there is a pressing need because county services, particularly code enforcement, have declined to unsatisfactory levels.

"They're planning to cut services if we don't incorporate, so it's going to get worse," he said.

Other residents have complained about response times of about eight minutes - once 11 minutes - from the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which must also patrol Sunset Beach but travel over a freeway overpass and down Seal Beach Boulevard to get to Rossmoor.

A Rossmoor city could mean one dedicated patrol car at all times for the community, Taboada said.

Manager would retire

If the ballot measures pass in November, Rossmoor would incorporate Jan. 1.

The new City Council "would determine who would be their city manager, and could be their interim city manager," Taboada said.

Taboada, 68, said he could stay on an interim basis through about July 1, if necessary.

Under the conditions of Taboada's pension from the city of Long Beach, he cannot take a full-time job and work more than six months in a year, so he would prefer to retire.

That is not to say he hasn't enjoyed his second act running small communities.

"When you work in a city like Long Beach, it is so large you don't get to roll up your sleeves a lot," he said. "Here, it's hands- on. You get to ... do a bit of everything."

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