Councils of Government: SANBAG and SCAG

By David Tse ’15

In recent years, the prized example of economic innovation, California, has fallen by the wayside, burdened by onerous regulation and partisan government. California, which rose so brilliantly in the 1950s and 60s, has run billion-dollar deficits for over ten years in a seemingly permanent fiscal crisis. While the state continues to rank among the largest economies in the world, its problems are enormous. In January 2012, Governor Jerry Brown predicted the Golden State’s budget deficit to be $9.2 billion; four months later, that number swelled to $16 billion. While some of the largest budget cuts, like education and employee benefits, were directed at the state level, much of the pain was felt by cities, some of which are struggling just to stay solvent. Stockton, San Bernardino, and Mammoth Lakes have already filed for bankruptcy, and the credit rating agency Moody’s predicts more to follow. At the same time, rapid population growth has forced many city governments to expand their services just to accommodate more residents. In short, fiscal problems at the national and state level have fallen to local and regional governments, who are now forced to cut budgets while struggling to retain essential services.

In light of these significant problems, it seems counterintuitive to think that California’s chronic financial concerns can be mitigated by more, rather than less, government. After all, overzealous government has been responsible for many of the state’s problems. Yet, as city finances become pressed, larger responsibility has been delegated to regional coalitions. One type of organization is called a Council of Government, or COG, which is a joint powers agreement between cities and/or counties. There are nearly 700 councils of government in the United States, of which California has 35. While the structural hierarchy of each COG is different, they are oftentimes composed of both elected and appointed officials. City governments are called to serve their COGs on a rotating basis alongside salaried employees, a method intended to ensure that regional interests are appropriately balanced with local concerns. Ideally, a COG will save time and money by combining the nimbleness of local government with the resources of a larger body.

To many California residents fearful of bureaucratic excess, Councils of Governments are entities to be feared. COGs do not have a universal purpose, and are often tasked with activities pertaining specifically to their respective localities, activities best coordinated from a regional basis. Depending on need, these services range from metropolitan planning, air quality management, financial services, transportation, to many more. Because of this, many of their core functions overlap with other government agencies. Even if a COG is not formally charged with a task, it often becomes involved at an unofficial level, goaded into action by new state requirements, city requests, or collective interest. Additionally, the size, scale, and function of each council can differ greatly. Some, like the Lake County City Area Planning Council, which oversees only 64,000 residents, are small. Others, however, carry large populations and, along with them, large responsibilities. The Southern California Association of Governance (SCAG) and the San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) are two large COGS in southern California.

Established in the 1960s, the Southern California Association of Governments is the nation’s largest COG, both in territory and population. SCAG represents 191 cities, six counties and eighteen million residents, a population which rivals Florida. Yet SCAG is unique for reasons other than its size. Unlike most COGs, which are usually limited to the county level, SCAG spans several counties: Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura. Originally, SCAG was created to oversee transportation needs, but the Council has gradually taken on more responsibility. Prompted by sizable demographic and economic shifts, SCAG now provides a wide array of services including growth management, air quality, and economic development. Given the variety and vastness of SCAG’s responsibility, it sometimes overlaps with regional governments. Yet, as SCAG’s Chairman Glen Becerra notes, its close proximity to their representatives allows for not only greater accountability, but also large efficiencies, particularly in transportation, which are enabled by the COG model.

Becerra notes that unlike the federal and state governments, SCAG is “fairly nimble” because of “its refined process.” This advantage is particularly evident in the COG’s core competency, transportation. Since residents frequently leave their cities and counties, plans developed within local governments must seamlessly integrate with larger networks, a perspective only larger agencies, like SCAG, can provide. Despite spanning six counties, SCAG has proved remarkably responsive, constructing, revising, and implementing a comprehensive Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) in a “highly compressed time frame.” SCAG’s unique size, coupled with Southern California’s heavy reliance on highways, makes its RTP among the most detailed in the nation. The plan, which must balance economic and environmental considerations, outlines all redevelopment effort until 2035. Given the long time frame, one would expect these initial predictions to differ greatly from the final product, especially considering the changes to the region. Area overseen by SCAG is expected to add four million residents by 2035, burdening a system which already wastes an estimated three million hours each year in congestion. Yet Becerra finds that even though infrastructure projects are “never easy, and always long term,” the RTP has, “for the most part, stayed pretty consistent.”

This is not to say that SCAG has refused to face new issues. In 2008, the California Senate passed SB375, which required California’s Metropolitan Planning Organizations (which also includes SCAG), to create regional plans to reduce vehicle emissions. Such regulations greatly affected SCAG’s traffic-congested region, but SCAG nevertheless adapted to the requirements by creating a Sustainable Community Strategy and developing fact sheets to assist local governments. Redevelopment efforts within the region now have a greater focus on environmental concerns. Every four years, the RTP is revised using the latest economic and growth forecasts. SCAG was able to meet these state requirements in a manner which uniquely suited its region. The COG noticed that between 2000 and 2009, active transportation options like biking and walking increased by 75 percent. Because of this, the most recent iteration of the RTP has led to considerable funding increases for transportation options like walking and biking; a plan which simultaneously balances the new state requirements and local modes of transportation. In the next thirty years, the COG plans to increase funding for these programs threefold from $1.8 billion to $6 billion. Much of this funding will be dedicated to ambitious projects, such as a plan to link all cities in the SCAG region via bikeway. However, the COG continues to support multiple types of transportation options be they highways, metro lines, bike lanes, or walkways. Numerous projects, like expanding the I-405 Highway, Metro Gold Line, and I-10, are already underway. Southern California residents will benefit from these projects as early as 2013.

While Becerra finds that “SCAG is pretty much where it wants to be,” the COG is still continuing to provide new services, particularly in the economy. After all, if the Southern California “economy is not healthy and robust… all plans are wasted paper.” With the recent recession, SCAG has begun to implement a regional economic plan which suggests changes for sub-regional COGS to implement. One idea is to increase coordination with the private sector, a move exemplified by partnering with the $30 billion Los Angeles film industry. Alongside the California Film Commission, SCAG outlined a number of “best practices” which were then sent to its 191 cities. The recommendations are by no means mandatory, and simply serve to inform cities about ordinances which concern the private sector. While Becerra is concerned with the health of the Southern California economy, he is hopeful that such partnerships will prove fruitful: “I haven’t met a business yet that hasn’t been willing to work with whatever rules that are put on them, as long as those rules are predictable.” Both governments and businesses who decry bureaucratic red tape, can find value in SCAG. As Becerra points out, the greatest advantage of SCAG is to “to help governments stay independent, but connect where they need to.”

The San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG), deals with similar issues at a more local level. While SANBAG technically falls under the purview of SCAG, it still carries important responsibilities, especially because San Bernardino County is geographically the largest county in the United States. With over 1.9 million residents and 24 cities, SANBAG is considered one of the larger COGs in California. Established in 1973, SANBAG was originally charged with basic governance, but quickly evolved into a major transportation and regional planning entity. In the past, SANBAG had an almost singular focus on transportation, mostly because it administered Measure I, a half-cent sales tax solely intended to fund transportation projects. Implemented in 2005, Measure I has been a key, predictable source of funding SANBAG, accounting for $1.2 billion in 18 years. It has also served to define its responsibilities since, as President Janice Rutherford notes, “function follows money.” Most of these funds are used to create efficient freeway systems and roads. Yet, the recent recession has made construction difficult. While “projects are costing less, revenues have decreased more,” imperiling SANBAG’s core function.

Nevertheless, SANBAG has continued construction on a diverse array of projects. One of its largest endeavors is the widening of Interstate 215, a major highway within Southern California connecting Victor Valley, Riverside County, Orange County, and Los Angeles County. Construction began in 2007, and will eventually add multiple carpool lanes and onramps over 7.5 miles by 2013 in an effort to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow. The scale of the project makes it impossible for any single city to tackle alone. SANBAG must work in conjunction with Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration, and the City of San Bernardino to administer appropriately the $723 million budget quickly and efficiently. While SANBAG President Janice Rutherford recognizes that transportation issues continue to be a large issue for the county, she finds that “demands the state is now placing on regional governments” have required SANBAG to expand its services. Because of this, SANBAG, which had long focused on transportation programs, has been forced to change. New responsibilities are colored more strongly by environmental concerns, and now include water policy and sustainable economic development. SANBAG does not intend to tackle these projects alone; Supervisor Rutherford seeks to work with other organizations on a case-by case basis. She views one of SANBAG’s most important roles to “be the convener of the discussion,” which allows organizations to join together and contribute to solutions without complete reliance on a COG. To aid this effort, SANBAG is seeking to create a database of government organizations and services, encouraging greater cooperation. Measures like these are more easily tackled by COGs like SANBAG, who have the unique ability to look at problems from a broad prospective and scale their services. Even so, because so much of SANBAG’s funding is tied directly to transportation, its present role in this new area is limited. As the years unfold and SANBAG’s preliminary discussions become projects, the COG will have to expand and diversify revenue sources in new and creative ways.

One of SANBAG’s larger, but perhaps less glamorous responsibilities, is holding workshops for the San Bernardino public. In hopes of hearing voices from local populations, SANBAG has held a number of free, accessible workshops pertaining to its services. Some merely serve to inform the public about routine meetings; others discuss more pressing issues, like fare changes to public transportation. This is consistent with SANBAG’s growing function as a forum for new ideas, which not only come from the government but also from the public. Such steps are essential to keep the COG accountable and responsive to an increasingly diverse populace.

SANBAG is still evolving, much like the region it represents. The COG continues to improve itself by discussing new ideas, projects, and responsibilities. Perhaps that is SANBAG’s greatest strength. Even without the funding to cover fully its new interests, President Rutherford finds value in the COG as a forum to connect local communities. She hopes that together with its cities, the COG can “find and see issues of regional importance, and bring people together to discuss and solve those problems instead of staying within artificial political boundaries.”

COGs are a peculiar government entity with their own unique goals and services. Yet no matter the function, they continue to provide valuable services for local communities. Both Becerra and Rutherford agreed that the COGs they lead face tough challenges, whether from population growth or falling revenues. Yet one hardly gets the sense that SCAG and SANBAG are incapable of meeting these challenges. By combining the perspective of regional governments while retaining the flexibility of local ones, COGs can provide a compelling model for efficiency.

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