Wendy Leung, Staff Writer
Created: 01/05/2011 05:46:05 PM PST

Local government officials’ interests were piqued when Gov. Jerry Brown said on Tuesday he wants to try a new approach to dealing with the state’s budget mess by restructuring the relationship with local government agencies and shifting many state services to county and city control.

Without any specifics from the new governor, few local officials knew how to react apart from being anxious.

The crux of the issue is money.

If the state wants to allocate more local control for programs that Californians are most closely connected with – including health care, public safety and welfare – that may be fine, but it remains unclear what the ultimate cost would be for already cash-strapped counties and cities.

“We read this with caution because we don’t know exactly what it means when he talks about evolving government programs and shifting programs and funding on a local level,” Rancho Cucamonga City Manager Jack Lam said.

“A government restructure is not a new concept here. But does this mean shifting programs with little money coming down? That’s always the question in people’s minds.”

On his first full day on the job, Brown met with county leaders to discuss shifting responsibility for a host of state-run programs. If eventually implemented, such a change would return some of California’s government structure to the way it was before voters passed Proposition 13, the landmark property tax revolt, in 1978.

“This will be a complex undertaking to realign jobs, whether it’s in foster care or welfare or food stamps, redevelopment,” Brown told reporters after meeting with officials at the California State Association of Counties.

“We’re going to try to redistribute power in a way that’s closest to the people, that it makes sense, and that services and the work of government can be delivered in the most effective, transparent way.”

San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford agrees with the theory that local agencies make better decisions for the people. But she wonders how much tax revenue the county could collect by providing services once run by the state.

“I obviously become concerned when they say, `We’re going to give you responsibility and we’re going to mandate how you run these programs but by the way, we’re not going to give you tax revenue,” Rutherford said.

The 2nd District supervisor said she’s “hopeful” that those aren’t Brown’s intentions.

“I hope this governor, in his unique role and with his experience in different aspects of government, will want to have an honest dialogue rather than shifting things around,” Rutherford said. “I’m going to be watching real closely.”

The maneuver is one way in which Brown is attempting to address an estimated $28billion budget deficit through June 2012. The shortfall comes after several years of budget deficits that have shown the state has a chronic imbalance in revenue and spending.

The governor has said he will ask Californians to decide what services they are willing to give up or pay more for.

The shift to a more centralized state government began when Brown was last governor, when voters in 1978 approved Proposition 13. That rolled back local property taxes and capped annual increases, shifting the financial burden for schools and other services to the state.

“Proposition 13, because it took away the power of counties to tax, for the most part, it sent the decisions up to Sacramento. So we want to redistribute all that,” Brown said.

Tuesday’s meeting, while upbeat, did not include specifics about his plans.

For example, it is unclear what would happen to the state agencies and employees who currently oversee many of the programs, although Brown mentioned the goal is to “realign jobs.”

“It all depends on how much funding and how much control. That’s the big unknown,” said David Wert, spokesman for San Bernardino County. “The governor said he is willing to work with the county very closely and that’s a very encouraging sign.”

County leaders are eager to be part of the conversation, although they repeatedly stressed that they cannot offer programs without adequate funding.

County association President John Tavaglione, a Riverside County supervisor, said counties already deliver many of the services, such as foster care, but face burdensome regulations and mandates from the state about how to do it.

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