Ever heard someone say: “I wish we had more counties”? Me neither. While the population of California has grown from 4 to 40 million in the last century, it hasn’t felt the need to add a single new one. A single county – Los Angeles – contains 10 million people and covers 4,753 square miles. In contrast, the Bay Area, with 7.8 million people and 6,900 square miles, has not one, not two, not four, but nine.
Why should you care about counties? Ask anyone who thinks San Francisco’s enormous city budget is normal, and the first thing you’re likely to hear is: “But we’re also a county!”. Recent news stories that sheriffs in SF make as much as $450,000 per year is purely a county, not a city problem problem. So it’s worth looking at counties, why we have them, and how they serve to bloat our city budget.
Counties exist to govern the spaces between cities and towns, as well as the cities themselves. While you may think Los Angeles County contains only the the city of LA, most of its population and geographic area are outside the city. Similarly, the City of San Diego is less than 10% the size of the County of San Diego. Ditto for Sacramento, City and County. In fact, all of California’s 58 counties include areas outside individual cities – except one. San Francisco is the lone, redundant, completely overlapping city and county.
What do counties do in 2020? It varies by state. An example will best illustrate the duties of those in California. Let’s pick the one most similar to San Francisco: Santa Clara.
The City of San Jose has a general fund (the part of the city budget doesn’t go to revenue generating departments like the airport) of $1.2 billion in FY 2020. San Francisco’s is $5.2 billion. But San Francisco is also a county, and while Santa Clara County, which San Jose is a part of, has an additional $8.1 billion budget, up from just $4.9 million five years ago. Here’s how that money was spent among the county’s two million residents:
The revenues for all this spending came from a number of sources – state and federal transfers, borrowing, taxes, and fees for services. The main takeaways here are the enormous amount of general spending (the $2B General Administration number includes about $200M of debt service) and other items, like the District Attorney’s office, that are duplicated county by county.
That’s the theme here – redundancy and duplication of effort. For example, the Santa Clara county spent $312 million on IT services to maintain exactly the same software apps that SF County, and the eight others in the Bay Area, had to purchase and support as well. If the Bay Area requires nine sheriffs, why does larger LA county do just fine with only one?
LA and many other examples show that some of all of the nine Bay Area counties need to be merged. And if we’re going to only merge one, let’s the pick the lone county in California that includes a single city, and nothing else. San Francisco is facing a $1.7 billion deficit next year. Combining counties is a simple and obvious way to lower the cost of city government without affecting critical services.