Making Marin More Efficient

“Cop Merger Could Cut Costs,” read a recent front-page headline of the Independent Journal. The article reported that San Anselmo (pop. 12,190) and Fairfax (pop. 7,200) might merge their police departments and by doing so “could save $430,000 annually” in dispatch and other operating costs.

The story also stated that both cites are “reeling from long-term budget problems” and that “police consolidation between these two towns has been discussed for more than 30 years.”

What is it about efficiency that many Marin municipalities, districts and agencies don’t get? Duplication and redundancy seem to rule the land.

Marin—one of California’s smallest counties—has 11 cities, all but two with less than 15,000 residents. And all but two have their own police, planning, recreation, and administrative departments. “We need more Twin Cities Police Departments,” said Christopher Burdick at a recent regional strategy conference. Burdick, an alternate commissioner with Marin’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), was referring to the Corte Madera and Larkspur police forces that consolidated 27 years ago. Later, Burdick asked rhetorically, “What are Ross and Belvedere, each with barely 2,000 residents, doing with their own police departments?”

In addition to its 11 cities, Marin has eight fire prevention districts, 11 mostly unrelated sanitary districts, six community service districts (e.g., Marinwood, Marin City, etc.), 16 county service areas that perform a variety of functions, and nearly a dozen other governing entities of some sort, including the much-maligned Marin Healthcare District.

Seven-member LAFCO—two county supervisors, two local city council members, two special district members, one publicly appointed member—was established by the state legislature in 1963 to “discourage urban sprawl and encourage orderly development of local governmental agencies.”

Marin has anything but “orderly development” of local government. Peter Banning, LAFCO’s executive officer, cites one example: “In the southern Marin area, including Tiburon, Belvedere, Sausalito, Mill Valley and county unincorporated areas, there are 11 different agencies (recently reduced to 10), overseen by 50 publicly elected directors, that serve slightly more than 50,000 residents.”

Cutting down on government is difficult, says Burdick, an Inverness resident. “An elected board rarely, if ever, will vote itself out of existence—or initiate a merger with a neighboring agency with the intent of gaining greater efficiency,” he says. “It’s not the nature of the beast. Consolidations are more likely to occur,” says Banning, of Mill Valley, “when taxpayers take the initiative, residents use petitions or, most often, when agencies themselves resolve to merge.” From there, he says, LAFCO kicks in with “extended discussions, political pressure, and plain old persuading.”

Marin’s last local consolidation occurred in 1999, says Banning, when the Tamalpais and the Alto–Richardson Bay Fire Protection Districts merged.

Life would be so simple—and efficient—with fewer agencies, districts and departments. Most of Marin County is being well served by the Marin Municipal Water District, Marin County Free Library system and Marin Open Space District. Why not build on these successes? As it now stands, Marin can be described as a mishmash of competing fiefdoms, each concerned with its own welfare, often to the detriment of the overall county governmental process. (And that’s not mentioning Marin’s 19 different school districts, each with its own school board, that serve about 26,000 K-12 students).

LAFCO (lafco.marin.org) merits the support of county taxpayers, especially those serving on district boards whose functions could, and many times should, be consolidated with a neighboring agency or municipality. It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to recognize that in Marin, greater efficiencies can be obtained—and countless tax dollars saved—through municipal mergers and consolidations. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

Email jwood@marinmagazine.com