Caring for Unincorporated Communities
By Alvin D. Sokolow
Republished from California County, March/April 2000.

People living in cities and unincorporated areas alike use county services, but as the state's population continues to grow, there's no guarantee counties will have sufficient revenues to meet the municipal needs of their residents. This article takes a look at population projections and considers the economic challenges they present.

Any Californian who reads newspapers or watches television news programs is well aware of our state's rapid population growth. With an estimated population of 34 million persons currently, California is expected to add another 18 million residents in the next 30 years, reaching about 52 million by 2030.

County governments are directly immersed in responding to the demands of such growth in two important ways. Most apparent is their role in serving their residents with health and social service programs, courts, criminal justice, environmental protection, record keeping, voter registration and election administration, and other basic services. This role is heavily directed by state mandates and state money.

Counties as Local Governments

Our focus, however, is on the other, more local responsibility of counties — as the basic government for people living in unincorporated areas. In addition to their countywide, state-mandated role described above, counties carry out the same municipal functions as cities, but in unincorporated areas outside of city boundaries.

It's not often appreciated that counties, like cities, serve residents with local police (sheriff), streets and roads and other public works, planning, parks and recreation, public libraries, water supply, waste disposal, and fire protection. Some of these programs are shared with the special districts that operate in unincorporated areas, governed either by county boards of supervisors or by independently elected boards.

The Largest "Community"

Almost one in every five Californians lives in an unincorporated area. Counted by themselves, these 6.4 million people constitute the largest community in California, far eclipsing the largest city in the state, Los Angeles, with its 3.7 million residents.

Of course unincorporated area residents are scattered throughout the state, in 57 of the 58 counties (all but the city/county of San Francisco). They live in many different kinds of locations — in isolated mountain and desert regions, farming areas, suburban spillovers from nearby cities, and stand-alone urban centers.

As well as tiny towns such as Hayfork, Tranquility, and Shandon, county-governed places include sizable urban areas, such as East Los Angeles, Rancho Cordova, and Castro Valley (each exceeding 50,000 residents). Also, unincorporated places are extraordinarily diverse in economic and social characteristics; some are affluent gated communities of estate homes, others are impoverished towns housing farm workers or families formerly dependent on forest-related jobs.

The unincorporated populations vary greatly from county to county in numbers and relative impacts. Twenty-one largely urbanized counties have at least 100,000 unincorporated residents apiece, while non-city residents are the majority in 26 mostly rural counties.

Table 1 identifies the top 10 counties in the number and proportion of unincorporated residents. Three major metropolitan counties — Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego — each have substantial county-governed populations of at least 400,000 apiece.

Future Population Trends

As California's population continues to burgeon in the next several decades, what will happen in the state's unincorporated areas? Future population estimates are regularly provided by the demographers of the state Department of Finance, most recently for each decade through 2050. Unfortunately, the numbers are not broken out separately for city and unincorporated areas.

One major reason is the inability to predict future new city incorporations and city annexations and their impacts in transferring populations from unincorporated to city territory. Both types of boundary changes are ongoing throughout California. Fifteen new cities alone were formed in the 1990s, with a cumulative population of 346,000 at the time of incorporation, and range in size from 3,400 (Buellton) to 86,400 (Citrus Heights).

It's safe to assume, however, that while the number of Californians who live in unincorporated areas will continue to increase, the share of the state's total population in unincorporated areas will drop. That's been the trend for some time.

For example, in the 18-year period between 1981-1999, according to Department of Finance estimates, the number of unincorporated residents statewide increased by 740,000, for a 13-percent increase. But in the same period, California's more than 400 cities added almost 9 million residents, a gain of 49 percent. As a result, the share of the state's total population found in unincorporated areas dropped from 23.7 to 19.1 percent.

Incorporations and annexations are only one reason for the relatively slow growth rate for unincorporated areas. Also a factor in recent years has been the generally more aggressive actions of cities in planning for and accommodating population increases through infrastructure expansion and other actions. In fact, some counties direct new residential development to their cities to avoid the public service costs of urbanization and to preserve agricultural lands and other open space.

Unincorporated Area Issues

If we can't easily project the extent of future population increases in unincorporated areas, we can still speculate in an informed manner about the kinds of challenges that county governments will face in serving these communities in upcoming decades. It is obvious that population growth, both from immigration and the natural increase of births, is turning California into a much more diverse society in its ethnic, economic, and educational makeup.

How are these patterns likely to play out in county-governed areas? Increasingly in California, it is becoming harder to distinguish between inner-city neighborhoods and rural places and between incorporated and unincorporated communities. This is the argument of University of California, Los Angeles, geographer William A.V. Clark in an article in the February issue of California Agriculture, a bimonthly publication of the University of California. The February issue was devoted to demographic trends in California.

Clark notes especially that communities in rural parts of the Central Valley and other agricultural regions of the state share the classic core city problems of poverty, deteriorating housing, poor access to health care, crime, and limited public services. Many of these places are unincorporated farm worker towns, plagued by high unemployment rates, limited job opportunities, and low education levels.

It is especially difficult to deal with these problems in unincorporated communities. Of whatever size, unincorporated places lack the political power and locally concentrated government capacity that even small cities have to varying degrees. In calling on their counties for expanded services, they sometimes compete with other unincorporated places for county government attention and resources.

Conflicting Responsibilities

County governments are not always able to focus on their most needy localities simply due to their responsibilities to numerous, geographically spread-out communities. As well, there are the following inherent complexities in the role of county governments as local governments:

Revenue Realities

The following lists some of the challenges California counties face in governing their unincorporated communities. Looming over all of these challenges are the revenue inadequacies that constrain county governments. Lacking the state and federal funds that support mandated countywide programs, the services delivered to unincorporated areas depend primarily on property taxes, sales taxes, and other locally raised revenues.

Challenges Facing County Government
in Serving Unincorporated Communities

  • Pockets of poverty in particular localities.
  • Affordable housing needs, including farm worker housing.
  • Providing services to widely disbursed, isolated localities.
  • Serving new residents with urban expectations who move to rural areas.
  • Preserving farmland and other resource lands.
  • Economic development in distressed communities.
  • Revenues that fail to keep pace with population increases.
  • New city incorporations and city annexations that cut into county revenues for unincorporated areas.

Adding more residents to its unincorporated areas does not give a county a related boost in these revenues. The increased property taxes generated by new housing flow largely to K-12 education through the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund (ERAF), legislated in 1992-93.

The sales tax also does not directly follow population increases, unless they are accompanied by commercial development. Despite its discretionary character, the sales tax is a relatively poor revenue source for county governments.

This tax is a site-based revenue. Counties receive for their own use the basic 1 percent tax collected on retail sales in their unincorporated areas, while cities collect the same tax levied on sales within their boundaries. This seems to be an even arrangement, but in fact counties earn from the basic sales tax only about two-thirds as much as cities on a per-capita basis. Statewide receipts from the 1- percent sales tax in 1997-98 averaged $72.57 per capita for county unincorporated areas and $112.63 for cities.

Cities generally enjoy more commercial activity than county areas, leading to the higher sales tax revenues in relation to population. However, city borders do not limit the area from which consumers are drawn, nor do they confine the public service impacts of commercial development. The markets and effects of large shopping centers are typically regional, in which consumers and impacts on traffic, drainage, law enforcement, and other public sector issues spill over from city to unincorporated areas.

The 1-percent sales tax is a steady income producer, and it is a flexible revenue source, as compared to the separate sales taxes for transportation and public safety that are dedicated to specific purposes. However, in the last two decades, sales tax receipts by all California counties have declined from 2.6 percent to the current 1.4 percent of total general revenues. By contrast, cities statewide currently receive about 13 percent of their total general revenues from the sales tax.

Important Matters

Whether or not they experience population growth, unincorporated areas pose special service delivery and governance problems for California county governments. For those unincorporated communities that grow rapidly, tax and other local revenue increases fail to keep up with service demands. And for those with stable or declining populations-whether because of city incorporations or annexations or other factors-the service needs are not diminished: Pockets of poverty and the difficulties of serving widely dispersed and isolated populations remain.

From a statewide perspective, it's easy to ignore this local relationship, since counties spend many more dollars and are given much more attention as delivery systems for state-mandated services to all of their residents. But these are important matters for the more than 6 million Californians who depend on counties as their basic local government.

Table 1. California counties with the largest or most dominant unincorporated populations (1999 estimated populations).
Top Ten Counties in Number of Unincorporated Area Residents (In thousands)
Top Ten Counties in Percent of Total Population in Unincorporated Areas
1. Los Angeles 1,017
1. Alpine 100.0 percent
2. Sacramento 627
2. Mariposa 100.0
3. San Diego 456
3. Trinity 100.0
4. Riverside 388
4. Calaveras 92.2
5. San Bernardino 290
5. Tuolumne 92.0
6. Kern 271
6. Plumas 89.7
7. Orange 208
7. Inyo 81.0
8. Fresno 179
8. El Dorado 78.6
9. Contra Costa 178
9. Yuba 76.7
10. Santa Barbara 172
10. Sierra 74.1
Source: Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit

Alvin D. Sokolow, public policy specialist for the University of California Cooperative Extension, is a researcher and extension educator on California local government processes and issues, with an emphasis on farmland policy, land use, and local finance. Before accepting his current position, he was a professor of political science at University of California, Davis, for 27 years.

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