Every reporter who has covered local government knows of issues about which, for some reason, general incoherence prevails in public utterance and the media, delivered vehemently by both elected officials and department heads. Obsequious, cynical editors require the reporters to make up something plausible, which is then edited into new incoherence by paginators. If the editors perform adequately, later on they become local government communication directors and continue their careers crafting the obsequies of democracy.
And onward rolls the Great Wheel of Absurdity.
The argument between the City of Merced and Merced County about the possible annexation of lots about a quarter-section deep on the city side of Bellevue Road between G Street and Lake Road is a fine, possibly "classic" example of an issue full of public-meeting sound and fury signifying nothing because the real movers are never mentioned.
However, a trip to the county Assessor's office to inspect Plat Book #60 reveals that the big flap about annexation is just another collateral land deal made possible by the biggest boondoggle in the California Real Estate Rush and Foreclosure Bust: UC Merced.
This eastern section of Bellevue Road ends virtually at the gates of the new UC campus, the terminus of the northern part of a system of beltway roads designed to circumvent the City of Merced to deliver travelers to the gates of UC Merced without the annoyance of urban traffic.
It was actually mentioned by someone in either the city or the county's recent meetings on the argument over this annexation that cities themselves rarely if ever push for an annexation. Owners of unincorporated land put pressure on cities to annex their property so that city services, primarily sewer, water, local police and fire are available, which increases the value of the land because developers insist on them before starting projects.
Yesterday's horse pasture becomes tomorrow's student housing development or business/professional/medical office complex. The land owners make a lot of money when their land is annexed, whether they sell it to developers or develop it themselves.
However, a great struggle is breaking out between the champions of the city and the county: new City Manager Steve Carrigan and veteran County CEO Jim Brown, promoted from within after years of service under Dee Tatum. Carrigan argues that because the city is providing its services -- police and fire protection, which start immediately, then sewer and water after certain arrangements and guarantees have been negotiated with developers -- the city should get all the upwardly assessed property taxes. The county disagrees, citing its continued health and human services, its court system, jail, etc.
First, as veteran observers of local governments will agree, there is no anti-government sentiment quite as strong as a smaller government for the government above it: city for county; county for state.
Carrigan and Brown agree they are speaking different languages to each other but go right on speaking their different languages anyway.
But, in this case of city-county hostility, there is also a personality issue. Carrigan appears to be on the bullheaded side. Brown doesn't seem to be intimidated.
Brown has led the county during a terrible period, when all the devils of the Great Real Estate Boom and Drought have descended on it. Perhaps most disgusting of all was just after the Bust, when the county, at precisely the moment when its people needed more health and human services, laid off a large number of employees in those divisions while being held up for ransom by county farmers, who insisted on continuing the Williamson Act property-tax reduction on agricultural lands, which has had to be backfilled by the county after the state retreated from its commitment. Louis Bandoni, president of the county Farm Bureau at the time, set the tone of righteous indignation of the honest tillers of the soil as they ordered the supervisors to forget the poor and reward wealthy landowners, the "backbone of this county" or face the farmers' wrath on Election Day, a fate worse than death to the supervisors occupying seats without term limits.
Carrigan, the new Merced city manager, after brief stints with Sanger and Los Banos, is standing up to the county with nearly the same righteous indignation. He is presenting himself as the new can-do tough guy in charge. The former economic development director of Stockton, he was let go from that city's staff in 2009, as the disastrous economic development policies of Stockton came home to roost.
Of the cities in the nation with the worst per capita foreclosure rate during the height of the Bust -- Merced, Modesto and Stockton -- only Stockton had to declare bankruptcy after it had been thoroughly looted by its own developers, fixers and corrupt politicians...all in the name of "economic development."
Carrigan is no John Bramble (the manager he replaced). He's not a nice guy. He wants to show us all who's boss now. What sort of crittur have they invited into this henhouse now?
So, we have a dogfight between two staffers over property taxes, which both admit are and will be insufficient to pay for the services they are employing as rhetorical mortars against each other.
Once or twice in the proceedings, an old term was awkwardly inserted in the argument: John Q. Public. The way old John Q. was mentioned, it sounded exactly as if the politicians and bureaucrats were discussing an endangered species protected by laws and regulations that would have to be circumvented in the course of this Great War for the Annexation of the East Bellevue Road Corridor.
John Q. Public and his Hispanic compañero, Don Q. Publico, who represents the majority of the local population, will have about as much influence on this decision as they have had on other city annexations and development projects. John and Don Q. are as inconvenient nuisances in this titanic struggle between two heroic egos and the governments they head as San Joaquin Kit foxes are. Therefore, for example the loss of more percolating pasture to further deplete the city's water supply and the additional storm water shipped from the north to the south side of town or the additional traffic on G Street and Lake Road and connecting arterials may well be finessed in reports on the city's consent agenda someday.
Carrigan seems like that sort of city manager, a War Manager, striding forth across the land under the banner penned by that great poet/realtor/councilman of Atwater, Art Abercrombie: "Cities grow; counties don't!"
Specifically, they grow because landowners with property near or adjoining city limits speculate on the value the land will gain through annexation. Some of the larger owners in this propose annexation include: members of the Bandoni family; heirs and assigns of Robert Koligian, brother of former UC Regent Leo Kolligian,1 who as chairman of the Regents was the primary driving force behind getting a UC campus in the San Joaquin Valley; the University Community Land Co., administered by the Merced County Board of Education; Shirley Johnson; Christian Life Church; William M. Soltz; the Ichord Merced Family Ranch (another of their properties was the recipient of a multi-million dollar conservation-easement grant to mitigate for UC Merced's destruction of vernal pool habitat; Carol Spillman, and the Lakireddy family, who have two choice properties on the corner of Bellevue and Lake.
We want to make it clear that we are not criticizing these landowners. We are just putting names, some quite well known in these parts, on those who will be the great beneficiaries of this annexation. The profits they will realize will pay for many services for themselves. Whether the taxes ultimately paid from student-housing projects cover the municipal costs incurred by such projects or whether retailers won't negotiate deals with the city to forego taxes for a decade or so -- these issues remain to be seen. But by then it will have been forgotten that the present landowners profited greatly from this annexation.
1. Obituary of Robert Koligian, http://jaychapel.com/tribute/details/2178/Robert-Koligian/obituary.html
(It shows the variation of spelling of the last name between brothers in the same family)