Meetings to explore charter city concept

A pair of community meetings early next month are expected to further explore when, or even whether, cityhood might be in the future for a broad swath of land stretching from Vail Lake to Pinyon.

It’s possible that those meetings will reveal that any push to incorporate will require one or more feasibility studies and likely take years or decades to reach a decision.

“It’s not going to be easy,” George J. Spiliotis, executive director of a Riverside County boundary-setting agency, responded recently when asked about the challenges of incorporating rural communities today.

Spiliotis said he has fielded calls “on and off for several years” from Anza-area leaders who periodically explore whether to form a city. He said he typically responds by citing the double whammy of high municipal service costs versus the lack of sales tax revenues generated by largely-vacant rural areas.

“It’s never gotten to the point where a petition has been submitted or anyone (in the Anza area) has done a fiscal analysis,” said Spiliotis, who was hired in December 1989 as executive director of the county Local Agency Formation Commission.

The issues of such a petition and fiscal analysis efforts might be raised at a pair of meetings planned Sept. 1 and Sept. 8.

Bill Johnson, whose partnership owns and operates land around Vail Lake, is hosting a meeting at 3 p.m. Sept. 1 that is expected to explore incorporation and issues and a county program that was launched a decade ago to target and preserve environmentally-sensitive lands.

Johnson has applauded Anza-area leaders who have raised the idea of incorporation as a way of increasing local control over their region.

The Anza Valley Property Owners Rights Team, a citizens group that formed in response to aggressive county code enforcement practices, is expected to give an update on the possible formation of a charter city on Sept. 8. That discussion will be part of a 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. event, which will include a barbecue, at the Anza Community Hall.

The path to incorporation, Spiliotis said in a recent telephone interview, can be long, bumpy and costly.

An initial feasibility study, which would examine whether it makes sense to move forward, might possibly be done by residents or a low-cost consultant, Spiliotis said. A formal feasibility study could cost in the five or six figures depending on the complexity of the work involved, he said.

Some of those challenges have been spotlighted on an internet site created by Anza-area incorporation proponents in those cities at the early stages of their incorporation efforts.

The website solicits donations and volunteers to circulate petitions, make telephone calls or do internet tasks.

“The LAFCO process can be expected to take from 1½ to 2½ years and cost upwards of $250,000,” according to the proponents’ web site.

The website’s authors estimate that a new city in the Anza area would have about $19 million a year in property tax revenue at its disposal to pay for such municipal services as planning, public works, administration and police and fire protection.

But the website’s authors also note a key challenge. The area being studied blankets 334 square miles – which by far would qualify as the largest city in Riverside County – yet it is currently home to a mere 14,000 residents.

While those revenue, geographic size and population figures might be seen as major obstacles, many other rural communities have coalesced in the past to gain city status.

Temecula was home to about 27,500 residents when it became a city in December 1989. That incorporation effort took several tries and a pair of feasibility studies, Jimmy Moore, an incorporation leader, said in a recent telephone interview. Rapid growth has since pushed the population of that 30-square-mile city beyond 105,000.

A string of other fast-growing cities – Murrieta and Canyon Lake among them – quickly followed Temecula’s lead as a series of development booms rippled through the area.

Menifee had about 67,000 residents when it became a city in October 2008. That new city emerged from a nearly 50-square mile patchwork of diverse ages and interests.

Some of the first Menifee City Council gatherings featured audience recollections of the string of incorporation bids that played out over two decades. Those longtime residents recalled costly feasibility studies, contested annexations by adjacent cities and a seemingly endless string of LAFCO hearings.

Menifee’s formal incorporation came just three months after Wildomar, the county’s 25th city, became a municipality. Those new cities share a boundary, although at the time of incorporation Wildomar totaled about half the population and geographical area of its eastern neighbor.

The formation of the sister cities came after a decade-long lull in such milestones across the county. The pair of on-again, off-again incorporation drives was fueled by rapid growth and resident desires for greater local control and amid aggressive annexations launched by their neighboring cities.

Another spate of incorporations occurred in the county within the past few years. Eastvale became a city in October 2010, an action that was mirrored by Jurupa nine months later. Riverside County now contains 28 cities, Spiliotis said.

He said the financial challenges of forming a city have toughened in recent years as a result of the state siphoning away the share of vehicle licensing fees that had once been earmarked for municipalities.

The impact of that funding withdrawal, Spiliotis said, forces cities to rely heavily on sales tax revenues to fund crucial operations. Communities like Anza and Aguanga that have a small retail base would be caught in a tight financial pinch, he said.

Spiliotis said he tries to detail these challenges when residents of rural areas contact his office in hopes of forming a city as a way to boost local control, bring government meetings closer to residents and better match public policies with community wishes.

“I tell them it’s almost impossible to incorporate right now – existing cities are struggling (financially),” Spiliotis said. “I try to give them a dose of reality.”

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