10:25 PM PST on Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione never expected that his rise through the ranks of California’s counties association would top out just as state leaders proposed a sweeping shake-up of government services.

Tavaglione, president of the California State Association of Counties, is the group’s point person in tense, high-level Capitol negotiations on shifting billions of dollars’ worth of foster care, low-level prison inmates, fire protection and other state responsibilities to counties.

The idea, known as realignment, is a cornerstone of Gov. Jerry Brown’s solution to a $25.4 billion budget gap over the next 17 months. He and other supporters say the plan would bring government services closer to the people, improve performance and save money.

But the proposal’s details are far from being worked out. It depends on the assumption that voters will agree to extend temporary tax increases for five years — possibly in a June special election — and that counties won’t be left holding the bag thereafter.

Brown wants a deal done by March. That gives the governor’s office, Tavaglione and legislative leaders only a short time to try to fashion a compromise that will have long-lasting consequences.

“I have no doubt that at the end of this year I’m going to be exhausted,” said Tavaglione, who lives in Riverside. “But I love a good challenge. I love bringing people together.”

Tavaglione, 62, is the second Inland leader in recent years to be in the middle of a state/local budget imbroglio.

In 2004, Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge became president of the League of California Cities just as newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed grabbing $2.6 billion from local governments. Cities and counties countered with a first-ever ballot measure to ban such shifts. The initiative forced the movie-star governor and legislative leaders to the bargaining table.

But Tavaglione, said Loveridge, has a much more difficult task because of the complexity of realignment.

“John faces the question of how do you design this whole delivery system for the state,” Loveridge said. “That’s not an easy question for the state, either policy-wise or politically. It will be a year John Tavaglione will not forget.”


Re-elected to a fifth term in November, Tavaglione is the county board’s second-longest-serving member after Bob Buster. The plainspoken Army veteran is known for wisecracks during meetings and spends some of his free time as the singer/bassist for The Legendary Mustangs, a rock ‘n’ roll band that Tavaglione helped start as a teen.

A self-described moderate Republican, Tavaglione travels to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., regularly to help push counties’ interests.

He sometimes ruffles feathers along the way.

In 2009, Tavaglione helped organize a Capitol-area budget briefing for Southern California lawmakers and lectured them on how their failure to compromise was hurting counties.

“I’m telling you, you’ve truly lost touch with those you represent,” Tavaglione told sullen legislators, some who soon left muttering.

County officials say Tavaglione is the right person for the high-stakes role he’s filling.

“John’s worked extraordinarily hard to ensure that counties, all 58 of them, stay on the same page. That’s a massive task and I think he’s working full-blast on making sure it happens,” said Dan Wall, a longtime county lobbyist who currently works for Los Angeles County.

Tavaglione faces multiple challenges along the way.

Counties want assurances they will get the money to pay for the services that lawmakers seem intent on sending their way — and the flexibility to deliver them. Brown’s plan calls for counties assuming $5.9 billion in services in 2011-12, growing to $7.25 billion in 2014-15.

Tavaglione also has to juggle Riverside County’s interests and those of the state’s 57 other counties.

Another major part of Brown’s budget plan is the elimination of the state’s more than 400 redevelopment agencies. The agencies use property-tax revenue to pay for economic development and anti-blight projects.

Many county officials view the city-centric program skeptically, seeing the agencies as diverting property-tax revenue from counties for projects of questionable value.

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