By Adam Probolsky.
California’s special districts are the Rodney Dangerfields of government bodies.
Day in and day out, they provide us with clean water, pick up our trash, exterminate nasty pests, and even treat our sewage at a low cost to ratepayers and operating largely under the radar. Reasonably enough, if trash gets picked up and water comes out of the taps…most people are happy to let special districts operate in the background.
And, though they provide these tangible services, it seems that special districts don’t get no respect!
Some of this is innocuous. No one grows up dreaming of their first election to the local cemetery district or being appointed to the airport authority. That’s unlikely to change. What is changing is the ability for special districts to operate in political obscurity. This part is dangerous.
State and other local governments are eyeing special districts’ assets and services, and more importantly, have the political skills to make consolidation possible. Moreover, once-a-year lobby days won’t be enough to stop the seasoned political professionals in Sacramento.
Just ask redevelopment agencies, whose assets were seized in 2011 as part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to balance the state budget.
We’re seeing a similar tactic in this year’s state budget that could lead to consolidation of water districts. Under legislative language being circulated in Sacramento, the State Water Resources Control Board would have the authority to force consolidation when “a public water system fails to reliably provide an adequate supply of safe potable water.” The drought is being used as political cover for special district consolidation.
Special districts no longer have the luxury of operating in obscurity. If the state can seize redevelopment assets and force consolidation of water districts as part of the budget process, nothing is sacred and all governments are vulnerable to consolidation.
This spring, our polling firm, which works with special districts throughout the state, sought to test just how vulnerable special districts are to consolidation. Our statewide survey revealed that 63.5% of California voters agree that most special districts should be consolidated into cities, counties or other local or regional government agencies.
We intentionally crafted the question to be somewhat biased – in order to realistically reflect the public’s predisposition and lack of knowledge about special districts. Clearly, special districts are vulnerable – as most Californians initially support the idea of consolidation.
The charge now is for special districts to educate the public about each district’s role and real-world positive impact in their daily lives. That starts with basic polling and other opinion research to better understand the messages that will resonate with their constituents, and then requires that agencies develop the communication tools to regularly inform those constituencies.
There’s always room for improvement, and it would help that special districts also focus on greater transparency. But, by and large, special districts are among the most efficient government agencies in the state. Every day, special districts deliver millions of gallons of water to our homes and farmlands. They protect millions of people from the next fire, flood or other major emergency.
It’s time for these important agencies to take pride in their achievements and share them with the public.
Adam Probolsky is CEO of Probolsky Research, a full service opinion research and strategy firm that specializes in special districts.
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