La Jolla to Secede from City of San Diego?

Aggrieved by deteriorating services and infrastructure provided by the City of San Diego, whose financial outlook seems increasingly bleak and destined to insolvency, the community of La Jolla is seriously considering seceding from the city. The upscale community, home to over 40,000 residents, beautiful beaches and ocean bluffs, the cute and pesky seals that frequent La Jolla Cove, Mount Soledad, the Torrey Pines Golf Course, Birch Aquarium, and the University of California, San Diego, is more than capable of providing for its own services, and has been frustrated as resources have been siphoned away to line the pockets of San Diego employee labor union members while local services decline and the San Diego administration and city council appear unwilling or unable to tackle mounting debts and implement needed reforms.

According to a San Diego Union-Tribune article, “La Jolla is fed up with how San Diego can’t deliver key services like it used to. . . . The secession movement, a perennial, is once again becoming a hot topic in La Jolla. Proponents even have a logo. This time, momentum may be growing because of how the community is suffering from widespread decay.”

“People are fed up,” said Melinda Merryweather, vice president of Independent La Jolla, a citizens group advocating for secession.

Some parents have talked of splitting La Jolla schools off from the San Diego Unified School District as well.

A dispute over shoreline fire pits is a microcosm of the larger debate. The City of San Diego is removing its 186 fire pits across the city because it can’t afford the maintenance costs to clean them. La Jolla residents want to maintain the 7 pits in the community, and the La Jolla Community Foundation even wants to donate the money needed to do so, but the city has refused because it is taking an all-or-nothing approach to the maintenance and claims that it can’t service a select few.

Such a secession would not be unprecedented. In 2005 and 2006, the new cities of Sandy Springs, John’s Creek, and Milton split off from Fulton County, Georgia (which includes the City of Atlanta). Chattahoochee Hill Country and Dunwoody followed suit in 2007 and 2008, respectively. The communities were upset with high taxes and poor service delivery, and so became the first new cities in Georgia in 50 years. Instead of establishing municipal bureaucracies that would mirror that of Fulton County on a smaller level, the new cities adopted a “contract city” model, in which a city contracts out most of its services to private-sector providers. In an article for Reason’s Innovators in Action 2009 publication, Oliver Porter, who was instrumental in the Georgia incorporation movement, describes how Sandy Springs was formed in a very short period of time to effectively serve a population of 90,000 with only two city employees. In the article, he notes the benefits of incorporation and the public-private partnership (PPP) model:

While surrounding traditional cities have experienced severe budget problems during the current recession, Sandy Springs has enjoyed a $14 million surplus, in addition to funding a $21 million reserve.

During the three and a half years of operations, Sandy Springs has paved more roads in the community than the county had in the past 20 years, created new parks, established a 125­-person police force, and 89 firemen with all new equipment. The new city has vastly improved EMS capability, and has established a state-of­-the-art, joint electronic 911 service with another of the new cities. Cost sharing in many areas between the PPP cities has aided in keeping costs down. A much needed modern traffic control system has been installed. Local control over zoning, planning, permitting and code enforcement has been gained. The list of improvements is very extensive, and all of these changes have been introduced without tax increases. In fact, the city’s taxes are lower than the taxes on the unincorporated areas of the county.

The PPP that looked so risky at first has been an outstanding success.

Should La Jolla succeed in overcoming the hurdles to secession (San Diego will not easily let go of its valuable tax base, especially as it struggles to make ends meet), it would be wise to adopt the contract city/PPP model and avoid the mistakes of San Diego, which has yet to even implement the managed competition/outsourcing program approved by voters three and a half years ago (check out the San Diego Managed Competition Clock, which notes the amount of time that has passed since the measure was approved and an estimate of how much money the city could have saved in the meantime by implementing the program).