Guest Essay: COVID-19 & California’s Unincorporated Areas

More than 6 million people in California live in urbanized unincorporated areas, without an elected mayor or city councils to focus on local priorities and deliver services more nimbly. Instead they depend on the kind attentions and wisdom of County Supervisors, most of whom they cannot elect or recall from office.


This has resulted in a population of disenfranchised Californians equal in size to Missouri. In Sacramento County alone, unincorporated areas like Arden-Arcade, Fair Oaks and Foothill Farms comprise 600,000 citizens, or nearly 40% of the county’s population. That’s 600,000 individuals with no ability to locally elect a mayor or councilmember like the other 60% of the County.


In normal times, the daily effect of this is indecipherable to most citizens, but in challenging times – such as during a pandemic or homelessness crisis – the lack of locally elected and accountable municipal officials means residents and businesses in unincorporated communities must fend even more for themselves.


Consider that cities continue to handle their own municipal affairs during COVID. Potholes get filled, parking tickets are issued, and land-use decisions continue to be made. But not so much in a County when it’s all hands on deck to deal with the health crisis.


For example, Sacramento County allocated $104 million of the $181 million in federal COVID relief money to cover salaries and benefits in the Sheriff’s department. Another $24 million was tapped like a general fund to cover probation officers and park rangers. That’s $128 million that didn’t help improve messaging on COVID safety practices, reduce community spread among our unsheltered community, or help the many local businesses that are hurting. Yet, although the Sheriff got more money, unincorporated areas have not noticed any uptick in their local law enforcement.


Plus, Sacramento County has not reported COVID data for its unincorporated areas – they are invisible to the County, it seems. Our unincorporated areas are rather invisible in the local media as well. They report on cities like Sacramento (most of the time) and Folsom, Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova or Citrus Heights (some of the time). But the unincorporated area – which has been called the UnCity – remains largely invisible outside of the headline-making violent crime or car chase.


This invisibility has bred indifference, as UnCity residents’ opinions are easily and routinely dismissed by County government, whether distracted by COVID or not.


So why don’t the residents of the UnCity vote to incorporate? The reason is state policy is set up to discourage this. Counties fight tooth and nail against new cities, claiming county budgets will be decimated if the money they get for municipal affairs is diverted to new cities that might actually use those municipal dollars for municipal purposes.


Worse, the state gives counties the upper hand at demanding revenue neutrality payments (a.k.a. “alimony”) from new cities. This shifts revenues from a new city back to the County for 20 to 30 years even though the County is no longer responsible for the new city’s municipal services. That happened to Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova when they incorporated. Imagine how those funds could have been used to improve the new cities instead of propping up the County bureaucracy.


So the rules of the game work against the formation of new cities, and most unincorporated communities are powerless to put up enough of a fuss acting alone. For reasons like these, 13 different municipalities around the state, in 10 different counties, have come together as California (un)Incorporated. The coalition speaks with a unified voice about the need to reform the state’s now-two-decades-old rules of incorporation that discriminate against new cities.


The participating communities run from McKinleyville on the north coast to the mountains of North Lake Tahoe, to the Southern California beach town of Isla Vista. They include bleeding-edge growth communities in the Bay Area (Mountain House), the Sacramento Region (Rio Linda Elverta and El Dorado Hills), the Central Valley (Salida in Stanislaus County) and Orange County. And they encompass vital infill communities like Ashland and Castro Valley in Alameda County, Arden-Arcade in Sacramento County and East Los Angeles and Walnut Park in Los Angeles County.


They seek reforms to reduce the costs of municipal formation process and increase democratic governance for more Californians. So far their pleas have barely gotten traction in the Legislature, which is now stymied by COVID as well. Time will tell if the new legislative session allows more progress.


The Assembly Local Government Committee has on two occasions overwhelmingly supported California (un)Incorporated’s bill to give new cities the same access to motor vehicle property tax revenues that existing cities get, but the Assembly Appropriations Committee has killed the bills each time without discussion.


However, the fight must and does begin anew. To get involved and for regular updates, visit advocatesforardenarcade.com. Or on Facebook, visit @UnincorporatedCA.


Michael J. Seaman is a resident of Arden-Arcade and a co-founder of California (un)Incorporated.


Unincorporated Sacramento communities not shaded: