Town debates incorporation, seeks financial information from county
Mad River Union
MCKINLEYVILLE – The ongoing debate over whether McKinleyville should become a city is heating up now that there’s an effort underway to gather financial information about incorporation.
The latest discussion took place April 3, when a divided McKinleyville Community Services District Board of Directors voted 3-2 in favor of asking the county to track expenses within its boundaries in an effort to evaluate the feasibility of incorporation.
Although MCSD President John Corbett made it clear that the vote was in no way taking a position on incorporation, the board’s discussion revealed a rift between those who believe cityhood would be a costly mistake, and those who would like to see more numbers before making that determination.
“We need good information,” said Corbett, who placed the item on the agenda. “The last thing I want for McKinleyville is a Brexit-like vote.”
Corbett was referring to the United Kingdom voting in 2016 to leave the European Union, with many voters, and the leaders themselves, seemingly unaware of the economic and social consequences of doing so.
If McKinleyville were to incorporate, it would be a McKexit of sorts, with the town divorcing itself of select county services and taking on those responsibilities itself.
Like Brexit, incorporation is about sovereignty, allowing the town to control its destiny instead of being partially ruled by outsiders. And like Brexit, McKexit comes with a cost, mostly unknown at this time.
McKexit is an idea with a dearth of information, but an abundance of speculation and unknowns.
MCSD the new city government?
If McKinleyville were to incorporate, it would be logical for the MCSD to be melded into the new city government.
As it exists, the MCSD is like a truncated city government, with authority over sewer, water, streetlights, open space maintenance, parks and recreation.
Services now provided to McKinleyville by the County of Humboldt that would be part of a typical city government are land use planning, street and drainage maintenance and law enforcement. If voters in McKinleyville were to agree to the McKexit, the town could take over these functions and be in charge of them.
The benefit is that the people of McKinleyville would have direct control through the ballot box of the people running the city and making decisions about their community.
The downside is that someone has to pay for these services, a situation that could result in higher taxes. However, the financials of incorporation have, for the most part, been speculative. How much revenue does McKinleyville generate? And, more importantly, how much of those revenues would the County of Humboldt voluntarily cede to the new City of McKinleyville?
Under California law, new cities cannot take revenues away from counties, unless the counties agree to fork over the money.
Starting with expenses
In order to pursue incorporation, a full-blown, professionally prepared feasibility study would need to be completed. But that’s not being proposed at this time. Instead, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone is spearheading an effort to have county department heads track expenses within McKinleyville.
He brought the issue before the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 19. The supervisors voted to have the County Administrative Office work with department heads to discuss what efforts would be needed to carry out the request. Supervisors may consider Madrone’s request again sometime in the future.
Madrone is now trying to gather support for his proposal, hence last week’s agenda item before the MCSD board.
Invited by MCSD President Corbett to address the board, Madrone began by saying “Thank you Mr. Mayor and members of the council and the public. April Fools!”
Madrone said he has talked to the heads of Public Works and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office who have informed him that they could easily track expenditures in McKinleyville.
Madrone said information about revenues generated in McKinleyville are already tracked and would be available.
Madrone has said he just wants all these numbers made available so McKinleyville residents can make an informed decision about whether to look at incorporation.
“We don’t know if they are making money on McKinleyville or losing money on McKinleyville,” Madrone said about the County of Humboldt.
MCSD Director Dennis Mayo questioned the usefulness of the numbers that would be obtained. He noted that the County of Humboldt might spend a lot of money on roadwork in McKinleyville in one year, and much less the next year.
Mayo also questioned the cost for a new city of hiring department heads.
“If you look at the costs, if you have to hire a planning director, and you have to hire a public works director, you will bear the burden of all that cost. Right now, we’re sharing a little bit of that cost that is spread out through the whole county,” Mayo said.
“A whole bunch of this stuff is beyond speculative,” Mayo said.
Mayo suggested that the numbers collected won’t really tell people how much it would cost to run an actual city.
“As Larry the Cable Guy says, it’s like tennis shoes and bowling balls,” Mayo said.
Mayo said he wasn’t against the information being gathered and suggested that the board support the action already made by the Board of Supervisors to have the administrative office research the idea.
Mayo also questioned whether there was even a sizable number of residents who wanted incorporation. At the meeting, there were two citizens, not counting Madrone, who expressed support for collecting the numbers.
“I don’t see that there’s a burning desire,” Mayo said.
Barsanti focuses on Burke
Director Mary Burke said that she went door to door when running for office in 2017, she was constantly asked about the incorporation issue, She also recently spotted a car in McKinleyville with a pro-incorporation bumper sticker.
Incorporation is often mentioned on social media as a solution to the town’s woes.
When it came time for new board member Shel Barsanti to weigh in, her main interest was on comments made by Burke when she was running for office in 2017.
“I’m just wondering why you changed your mind, Mary? I have here a Mad River Union, Feb. 11, 2017, where you said you acknowledged that the state does not allow the community to take tax revenues away from the county of Humboldt... so I’m just really wondering what changed your mind about this.”
Burke said she hasn’t changed her mind.
“I’m looking for information that would help us be able to make decisions. I can’t change state law,” Burke said. “So I’m in support of finding the information. I cannot say whether the community would move forward with wanting to vote on incorporation.”
Apparently, Burke’s answer was insufficient for Barsanti, who continued to question why Burke could be in favor of collecting expense information from the county when she had said incorporation was unfeasible.
“I’m just wondering why you changed your mind?” Barsanti said.
Burke responded, “So just to be clear... without having financial information, it certainly appears that incorporation would be financially difficult,”
Burke said she would like the people of McKinleyville to have more information.
Near the end of the board’s discussion, directors talked about how the district itself has the authority to take on all sorts of city like powers. This would be an alternative to incorporation.
With voter approval, the MCSD could create its own police department, a public works department and planning department.
The problem is that there are no revenues to support these departments. This would mean McKinleyville would have to tax itself.
Director David Couch pointed out that residents would be paying the taxes they pay now, plus additional taxes to support these new departments.
When Barsanti had a chance to weigh in on the district’s latent powers, she decided to talk about Burke and something she had said about latent powers in 2017. Corbett cut her off and asked that board members discuss legislative matters.
When it came time for a vote, Couch, Corbett and Burke supported requesting the county to track revenues, while Mayo and Barsanti voted against the motion. The motion passed and a letter will be sent to the Board of Supervisors requesting that expenditures in the unincorporated community be tracked.