California Realignment with the Counties 060811

The Fringe Explains the New Politics



“Realignment” is the phrase used when the state dumps services on the county.  It took root as an idea in 1991-1992, when, some claim, the state revised its way of doing business because of the funding crisis caused by Prop 13.  Prop 13, passed by voters in 1978, restricted how property taxes could be increased.  The 1990s realignment was intended to restore the ability of counties to provide primarily social services. 


Currently, it is the global economic crisis which is causing the state to “realign” services. The essence of realignment is that responsibility, and some or all of the costs, for services are moved from the state to the counties.  Realignment is part of Jerry Brown’s bid to reduce spending by over $8 billion this year, and $17 billion next year.  The plan is to have counties take over everything from small water systems to child welfare.  The hitch is, the state still mandates the same levels of services.  The state has failed to meet its own standards for service, and will now turn delivery of those services over to counties with the same standard of service.  Brown is calling for a “vast and historic” realignment this time around.



There are various ways of discussing realignment.  Some describe it as “allowing the counties to find better local solutions by allowing them more local control.”   The idea is that, though the state couldn’t afford to run services any more, the counties, somehow, will.   


One way to look it realignment is this: California is an empire, and all the counties are colonies to that empire.  The emperor charged the colonies for all kinds of things, but provided services in exchange.  For example, the army would come and capture the local bandit in exchange for taxes.  The relationship here is simple: only the Emperor can steal from the people.  When the colonies begin to cost more money than they bring in, they are given their freedom.  To some extent, the counties are being given some freedom to run local programs as they see fit.


A legislative analyst office review of earlier “realignments” found that funding sources were found, and that counties really did do a better job of providing services than the state.  The 2001 report discussed a different reality from today’s crisis. 


During realignment, funds get swapped around, but there are often constraints.  In recent past realignments, schools suffered in order for other services to be provided at the county.  First 5, California’s wonderfully successful program to oversee the wellbeing of kids 0-5, is likely going to be stripped of the surplus it has accumulated.  The lesson for public managers in this: spend all your dough or it will be nabbed by the state. 


This go around public safety is the main issue, including firefighting and emergency services in rural areas, low level offenders, child welfare services, juvenile and adult probation, court services and mental health.


One service that’s being realigned is the storing of criminals.  Because a judge mandated that California’s prison population was excessive, the prison-industrial complex is going to have to rid itself of prisoners.  The easiest, swiftest way is to simply send the prisoners back to their county of origin.  Only nice prisoners will be sent back, according to the plan, not the really scary ones.


But it isn’t clear how counties are intended to supervise these prisoners.  In Sierra County, Sheriff John Evans estimates it will only be a few prisoners being sent back to the county for supervision, but even that will add to the caseloads of our relatively few probation staff. 


If California has non-dangerous offenders to return to the counties, it might be most cost effective of all to simply stop sending such people to prison.  People on community service pay their own food and medical costs, and not sending people to jail will often mean not sending their children to foster care.  The key here is to change California’s sentencing laws, and to simply legalize drugs. 


Child welfare services, the subject of recent “redesigns” is also going to be “realigned”, though it would be fair to say social services have been under near constant stages of alignment, realignment and re-realignment. Foster care is expensive and not very efficient; even though the government has tried over and over to have foster parents act like good parents, only a few actually do.  Further, CWS, like some other social services, is constrained by federal requirements on the state.  Some mandates for foster children are suspended for a year.


Realignment will benefit counties only if funding streams are provided.  Currently, there is a projected 5 year extension of the vehicle license fee.  In short, the counties will turn the bill over to drivers. 


There are many hurdles in front of this proposed budget; one will be to satisfy counties that they will somehow be able to do the job more cheaply than the state.  That isn’t going to be easy when counties are also strained and local sources of revenue are thin. 


Following realignment to its logical conclusion, we are going to be paying more for services from counties.

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