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Are Charter Cities Good Or Bad For Taxpayers?

California’s charter cities have come under scrutiny in recent years because of three high-profile municipal bankruptcies.

Locally, San Diego is the largest of eight charter cities in the county.

Escondido also is flirting with the idea of becoming a charter city. But there is disagreement over whether charter cities are good for taxpayers.

San Diego State University and UC San Diego political science Professor James Ingram said the move to become a charter city can be a good thing because it allows cities to basically create their own framework of government including greater protections for taxpayers.

"Rather than take their form of government from the basic California government code, (charter cities) get to write their own constitution," Ingram said.

San Diego voters this week overwhelmingly approved Proposition A, which made changes to the city's charter.

"We figured out there was something wrong with our election system in San Diego and we were able to fix it, if you're a general law city the government code is the only way you can change the law to make sure things work," he said.

The San Diego-based Middle Class Taxpayers Association this week launched a web site to warn voters about charter cities.

Murtaza Baxamusa, secretary-treasurer of the Middle Class Taxpayers Association said, charter cities in and of themselves are not necessarily ripe for failure.

But he said, "We're concerned about taxes, deficits, and corruption such as the one we saw in Bell, San Bernardino and other cities in the state."

Baxamusa said California charter cities, Stockton, San Bernardino and Compton, went bankrupt for lack of fiscal soundness in the way in which they were spending their money. He said the same thing wouldn’t have happened in a general law city where you have to balance your budget every year.

Ingram said non-charter cities go bankrupt as well.

"Look at Detroit, Michigan," he said. "Is Detroit facing the problem of fiscal insolvency because they are a charter city or are they facing it because the auto industry went bye-bye?"

Baxamusa said Washington-based lobbyists are behind the effort to turn cities into charter cities.

"In all the cities where we've seen the last round (of ballot propositions), Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, Escondido and others they had very similar templates that were essentially shell documents with very similar language with a very similar ideological motive behind them that was not really the will of the people being expressed," Baxamusa said. Voters rejected those ballot measures, he said.

He said the lobbyists represent contractors who believe they can save money if they don't have to follow state law.

"The converse is true because state law says that if you do not require prevailing wages in contracting then you do not get state funds," Baxamusa said. "Therefore taxpayers are getting the short end of the stick."

Ingram said this all depends on how a city's charter is written.


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