California's youngest city, Jurupa Valley, could cease to exist over budget woes

Sunrise over California Highway 60 in Jurupa Valley.
Sunrise over California Highway 60 in Jurupa Valley.
Keven Harris/ Flickr

California's youngest city evokes memories of the old West: residents ride horses against a backdrop of hardscrabble hills, and political wrangling takes place in a store that once sold cowboy boots.

There is fear that the city itself could soon become a thing of the past after state lawmakers — in what residents blame as a classic government blunder — shifted funds away from communities.

"Our tax dollars were supposed to be here," said Councilwoman Laura Roughton. "It's so frustrating that $18 million was supposed to have stayed here so that we could build a city and it was taken."

The community of 97,000 people at a major freeway crossroads could be the first in California to disband in 40 years if council members vote to start the process Thursday.

Just three years ago a group of unincorporated areas 45 miles east of Los Angeles became a city, where warehouses are used as a major distribution point for retailers and suburban subdivisions have sprung up alongside older equestrian neighborhoods.

In some ways, it was doomed from the start by legislative budget shuffling to shore up a statewide prison overhaul.

In the nine communities that are now Jurupa Valley, many wanted a stronger voice to preserve the area's semi-rural lifestyle, where residents keep animals, trailers and barns in their backyards and hay and feed are sold on the main thoroughfare along with fast food and pizza.

But just days before Jurupa Valley was incorporated, state lawmakers in Sacramento diverted revenues from motor vehicle license fees away from cities. The move affected municipalities across the board but especially the state's four newest municipalities in suburban Riverside County, which relied more on the cash than older cities that received other sources of revenue.

While several other cities struggling since the recession have filed for bankruptcy, disincorporation is a dire measure that isn't a likely solution for cities saddled with debt or other cash-flow troubles.

"Any city of any size is likely to have a fairly complicated set of obligations. That becomes a real problem — what do you do with those?" said John H. Knox, a public finance attorney who represents the city of Stockton in federal bankruptcy proceedings. "Then there's the political reality: the first rule of politics is nobody gives up power voluntarily."

Without a change in funding, Jurupa Valley could run out of money by July 2015. To date, the city ought to have received $18 million in motor vehicle license fees from the state, which would have covered about a quarter of the city's annual budget and initial startup costs, said City Manager Steve Harding.

The city runs like a startup, cramming staff into a strip mall office and using old furniture and donated computers. The city has no debt and no pension obligations because it has no staff; everyone has been hired by contracting agencies to keep costs down.

State Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, has proposed a bill that would restore revenue to the four affected cities, and Jurupa Valley officials say they are surprised state lawmakers have taken this long to correct the bureaucratic problem they created.

"It is such a minuscule issue to them in comparison to all the other things they're dealing with, they don't put any priority on it," Harding said. "It just gets swept under the rug."

If Jurupa Valley officials vote to move toward disincorporation, a county agency will consider the impact and a public hearing will be held. Residents will need to vote on whether they'd prefer to revert to county control or tax themselves to stay independent — an unlikely proposition in the largely blue-collar suburbs where taxation is a dirty word to many. The process could take 18 months.

For Robert Zavala, 57, a travel agent who owns two horses on his half-acre lot, cityhood makes a big difference. Jurupa Valley residents now have the ear of five elected officials while at the county they had just one representative on a five person-board.

But much of what Jurupa Valley has gained by uniting its diverse communities can't be taken away, not even through disincorporation.

"I don't want to think it was for nothing," Zavala said.