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McKinleyville, Inc.? 

Humboldt County's third-largest population center mulls cityhood

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone stands at the McKinleyville sign.

Photo by Ollie Hancock

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone stands at the McKinleyville sign.

Although McKinleyville is the third-largest community in Humboldt County, it is not legally a city. It does not have a city council and cannot pass local ordinances, collect sales tax, police its residents, plan its development or even fix its own roads. All its major decisions are made by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, and only one supervisor, who represents the county's sprawling Fifth District, is expected to really understand the community's needs or watch out for its welfare. That one supervisor's time and attention must be divided, however, between McKinleyville and communities north to the county line, and east past Willow Creek and Hoopa. And to get anything done, two other supervisors must agree.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone, who initially campaigned in part on a pledge to better represent McKinleyville on the board, said he is neutral about incorporation but explained why it could be mutually beneficial to the community and the county.

"Most of the residents in the Second, Third and Fourth districts live in incorporated cities," he said. "If the people have problems and concerns, they take them to their city governments. But in the First and Fifth districts, the great majority of residents live in unincorporated areas and have to depend on the county government to deal with problems that arise."

Many McKinleyville residents feel it is high time the situation changed. If McKinleyville were a city, they argue, it could take charge of its own destiny, and even capture revenues from local, state and federal sources. Other residents, meanwhile, are uninterested in the issue or assume cityhood would automatically mean higher taxes and denser neighborhoods full of high-rises.

The McKinleyville Community Services District, which operates quietly and efficiently in the background, currently provides water, sewage disposal, parks and streetlights. But it can't fix potholes, arrest drunk drivers, or say yes or no to a controversial development proposal.

McKinleyville residents have tried twice in the past few decades to attain cityhood. Both attempts failed. One in the mid-1960s "went down in flames" at the ballot box. A second, around the turn of the century, faltered and eventually died in the course of being studied by citizen committees. Now McKinleyville is seriously considering a third try. During the past few months, three different studies have been presented to the public on this issue, including one recently from the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury.

Many McKinleyville residents were happy to get a greater voice in the county's planning process when the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee was formed in 2019, after years of feeling ignored by county decision makers. Colloquially known as the McMac, the advisory body was created to discuss and evaluate local concerns, and bring them to the attention of the county planning department and the board of supervisors. Many members hoped the McMac would take a hard look at incorporation.

Most of the McMac's time and attention over the next few years, however, was devoted to issues around developing the Town Center, the undeveloped area near the Safeway between Central and McKinleyville avenues in the middle of town. Incorporation took a back seat until the McMac delegated the issue last September to a subcommittee called the McKinleyville Incorporation Exploration Subcommittee (MIES).

Incorporation is largely a financial issue. In an ideal situation, the county would be taking in as much money from tax revenues generated in McKinleyville as it pays out in services to the community. That is called "revenue neutrality." However, nobody really knows how much money McKinleyville contributes to the county or how much the services it receives are worth.

But Madrone has been trying to get some basic financial data from the county for four years.

"If the county is bringing in more money from McKinleyville than it is spending, for example on the sheriff's department, then it would be logical for McKinleyville residents to ask for more services," he said. "If the county is spending more on McKinleyville than it brings in, then the county might well want to get out from under."

However, the county has been slow to comply with Madrone's requests. The county budget is very complicated, Madrone said, and parsing it out seems a low priority, though he expects to get some figures in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, MIES has been studying the many issues that incorporation would involve. It quickly learned little can be done without the involvement of the Local Agency Formation Committee or LAFCO.

LAFCO is a state agency formed more than 50 years ago to promote orderly growth, discourage urban sprawl, preserve agriculture and open space and encourage efficient, sustainable public services. There is one LAFCO for each of the 58 counties in the state, each including local county and city government representatives. One of LAFCO's mandates is to control municipal and jurisdictional boundaries, and therefore the creation of new cities. Another is to determine how basic public services are provided.

When it comes to overseeing the incorporation of new cities, LAFCO's most important task is determining whether the new city would be able to generate the money it needs to provide essential services.

Last fall, the MIES asked Cal Poly Humboldt's School of Business to get involved. Associate Professor Josh Zender, with the help of one undergraduate and two graduate students, produced a 90-page study on the pros and cons of incorporation in California, specifically addressing McKinleyville. Zender warned that much further study would be required.

"The legal steps that will still need to be performed in the approval process include conducting a preliminary feasibility study, establishing logical boundaries, obtaining petition signatures from at least 25 percent of registered voters or via a county board resolution, conducting a comprehensive fiscal analysis demonstrating revenue neutrality, and achieving voter approval by most residents," the report states. "If the community were to incorporate, it would need to establish its own local government, raise revenue through taxes and deliver a range of public services."

What Zender did not mention was the full-scale Environmental Impact Report that would also be required by LAFCO. (Madrone told the Journal Planning Director John Ford thought a more limited report would be adequate, since few physical things would actually be changing.)

Madrone estimated the cost of all these studies, which must be done by professional consulting firms, could reach $300,000. In his study, Zender also described the experiences of other recently incorporated California cities. He concluded: "The initial assessment suggests that the financial feasibility of municipal incorporation appears promising ... the data suggests that McKinleyville could operate with its own governance and funding structure, especially given its rapid population growth rate. However, more research and analysis are necessary before making any final decisions."

Addressing both the incorporation exploration subcommittee and more recently the community services district's board of directors on June 7, LAFCO Executive Officer Colette Metz Santsche presented an overview of the numerous hurdles a community must clear to become a city.

Santsche noted four California cities have attempted incorporation in recent years, all in Riverside County. Three were successful; the fourth failed at the ballot box. She noted a city can take charge of all services provided to its residents, choose to contract some out, or rely on special districts or even the county for others.

Incorporation, Santsche said, requires not only LAFCO approval but, more importantly, majority support from residents in an election.

A local agency or group of citizens must represent the community throughout this process. Madrone told the Journal the county board of supervisors, if it chooses, can start the ball rolling. Or some other group could take the lead.

The group, whichever it turns out to be, must first file a "notice of intent to circulate a petition" with LAFCO. The petition must be signed by at least 25 percent of registered voters within the area that would be incorporated — about 4,300 signatures, in McKinleyville's case — and present a preliminary application along with a $15,000 deposit.

Then comes a preliminary feasibility study. This describes how the city will provide — and pay for — necessary services to the public, and whether new taxes or fees would be required. During this phase, the community also defines its boundaries, estimates what effects this change might have on neighboring communities and takes a broad look as whether this is all financially feasible.

If LAFCO finds the preliminary feasibility study encouraging, the community must then come up with a much more detailed comprehensive fiscal analysis — a hard look at how much money the county would save or lose if McKinleyville were to break loose. This is crucial, as the law requires that the analysis show the county would not be fiscally harmed by the change. A similar analysis must be done for McKinleyville itself: Exactly where would the money needed to run a city come from? How will the city come up with the numerous expenses required by incorporation? Santsche described this as "one of the most important and challenging hurdles," recommending all these studies be done by professional consultants.

Santsche mercifully did not present the board with the state-required checklist of 150 tasks that must be accomplished before, during and just after incorporation. These range from the ultra-complex — like establishing legal relationships with numerous state agencies — to the mundane, like buying office furniture. Before the city can go into operation, it must hire a city manager, city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer.

After the studies are prepared and then approved by LAFCO, a special election must be held. At least 50 percent plus one of the ballots returned by registered voters in the affected area must favor incorporation for it to pass. The election is paid for by the new city if successful, but the county picks up the tab if incorporation is voted down.

At that point, if voters approve, the work of starting up and running the new city can begin.

After Santsche finished, the McKinleyville Community Services District board discussed these issues and raised questions. Many of the questions involved what role the district would have if McKinleyville were to successfully incorporate. The law states that the McKinleyville Community Services District could continue to provide the same services to the new entity as it does presently but that would ultimately be up to the new city government to decide. At the meeting, Madrone, emphasizing that he was speaking only as an individual, praised the district as one of the best in California.

After the LAFCO presentation was done, the board discussed the newly issued grand jury report.

The report summarized work that had been done previously, the challenges and opportunities facing McKinleyville, and found that despite two previous attempts at incorporation, "no in-depth initial feasibility analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of incorporation has ever been conducted, resulting in the citizens not knowing the pros and cons of incorporation."

The grand jury observed that no funding to produce such an analysis is currently available.

In a long list of recommendations, the grand jury urged the board of supervisors to contribute some funding to help move the process along and work with the McMac on finding funding sources and seeking consultants.

By law, the board of supervisors is required to respond to the grand jury's findings and recommendations within 90 days. Both the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee and the McKinleyville Community Services District are invited, but not required, to respond within 60 days.

District board members expressed concern about the funds required for the analysis, noting the county is facing budget difficulties. They also said the 60-day requirement for a response is problematic for an agency that meets only monthly. Director Jim Biteman described the grand jury's recommendations as "overwhelming."

Other directors expressed concern about the future role of the district if incorporation were to occur. Director Greg Orsini said the district functions very well and he worried about "throwing out the baby with the bath water" if incorporation happened.

Kevin Jenkins, a local business owner and member of the McMac, said, "There is a strong recognition that the [McKinleyville Community Services District] functions admirably."

The board passed a motion to direct General Manager Pat Kaspari to draft a letter for review by legal counsel Russ Gans, which will then be submitted to the whole board for further review. Gans, who was present at the meeting, urged the board to take this opportunity to "scope a response to the grand jury and articulate concerns that this board and this district has."

"If any scoping study is to be conducted," Gans continued, "now is the time to set the parameters of that study, to make certain that there's not false assumptions that we'd have to come back later to process."

In an email, McMac President Lisa Dugan said the committee is currently taking a "neutral stand" on incorporation, at least until it hears Santsche's report in July and Zender's in August.

"It seems a prudent time to bring enough information forward so that citizens have the facts and can decide if that's what they want," Dugan said.

Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.

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Elaine Weinreb

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