Staff members from the Local Agency Formation Commission then review the case and conduct an independent analysis. If disincorporation is approved, an election is held in the city, requiring a simple majority vote to pass.
“The last successful disincorporation was [Cabazon] in Riverside County in the early 1970s,” writes Ott in a July email. “Disincorporation is extremely rare and, in most situations, is not a viable or constructive solution. It is usually proposed out of short-term frustration over fiscal and/or political instability.”
Ott says that since 1980, the option of disincorporation has been discussed in two cities in San Diego County: Lemon Grove and Imperial Beach.
“In each case, the disincorporation efforts were abandoned after the cities got back on a stronger fiscal standing,” says Ott. “The big issue with disincorporation is to determine how and to whom responsibility for government services should be transferred. There usually are no willing takers for all the debt and liabilities from the disincorporated city. Successor agencies are typically county government and special districts (if applicable).… If there is debt that cannot be feasibly transferred to a successor, then property owners may also be levied new taxes with voter approval.”
While talk of disincorporation continues, some residents, such as Moore, have been busy fighting an effort to increase the sales tax by a half cent, a move that many in the city thought was dead last March after Mayor Mary Sessom and Councilmember Mary England said they would not support placing the tax measure on the June ballot.
Weeks later, Lemon Grove residents such as Helen Ofield from the Lemon Grove Historical Society and Councilmember George Gastil began knocking on doors and collecting signatures to put the sales tax increase on the November ballot. They entitled the tax measure “Save Lemon Grove Now.”
In the booth at Anna’s restaurant, Moore shifts from talk about disincorporation to the tax measure. “‘Save Lemon Grove Now’ is a euphemism for extortion,” says Moore. “They are basically saying, ‘Give us more money or we’ll perish.’”
Moore believes the city needs to reprioritize the budget instead of raising taxes. “Small, underfunded cities like Lemon Grove often cannot afford the luxury of white-collar overhead,” he says.
The following morning, at a table inside the Starbucks at Broadway and Lemon Grove Avenue, Councilmember Gastil, a former school board member and first-term councilmember, dismisses the push for disincorporation.
“We are going to be incorporated,” says Gastil in between sips of iced coffee. “There are things that we are doing that the county wouldn’t do as well, such as redevelopment and land-use decisions. Our population doesn’t allow us to do everything ourselves, so we make compromises. We’re not a big city, but we’re much larger than one neighborhood.
“It’s going to have to get a lot worse before we really start talking about disincorporation,” he says before changing the topic to his effort to increase the city’s sales tax. “The sales tax increase would allow us to stop using the reserve for the general fund. There’s a chance that we are going to need this more than we realize. The sales tax isn’t such a fix for the immediate future but is really a long-term fix.”
That morning, Gastil appeared confident that the citizens had collected the 1165 valid signatures needed to put the sales tax measure on the November ballot.
He was wrong.
The petition fell 8 signatures shy.
“I was really surprised,” Gastil says recently. “The citizens group had something like a 15 percent error rate. I don’t know how that happened, but they came up short.”
Lemon Grove city councilmembers again discussed the sales tax at an August 3 meeting, three days before the deadline to place the measure on the November ballot. A ballot proposition required the support of four of the five councilmembers. Gastil believed it was a sure thing. “I felt that there was substantial support for the increase. Eight signatures short is a stupid reason to have kept it off the ballot.”
During that meeting, Councilmember Jerry Selby, a supporter of the increase, was absent. When the council voted, Councilmember Mary England cast the sole “no” vote. With only two councilmembers and the mayor in support, the proposal was dead.
“It caught me by surprise. I didn’t know [Selby] was going on vacation,” says Gastil during an August 17 phone interview. “It’s too bad because, unless there’s a special election, the next opportunity to put it on the ballot is February 2012.
“In theory we have enough reserves to go a couple of years without making any major cuts, but in reality we aren’t going to want to spend our reserves.”