USC Price School of Public Policy

Tackling big issues facing CA counties — from homelessness to fiscal disparity

February 13, 2018

Matthew Cate, executive director of the California State
Association of Counties (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

By Matthew Kredell

Ninety percent of what happens in a state is decided by the administration, particularly at the local level, California State Association of Counties Executive Director Matthew Cate told the audience at the State of the County Luncheon – presented by the City/County Management Fellowship (CMF) at the USC Price School of Public Policy – on Jan. 25.

The event was part of CMF’s Connect and Learn Series sponsored by Keenan and Associates, an ongoing effort to promote good governance and prepare leaders to address the challenges facing local governments. About half of the 40 people in attendance were USC Price graduate students.

The California Association of Counties (CSAC) represents the state’s 58 counties before the California legislature, administrative agencies and the federal government. Before joining CSAC, Cate spent more than four years under two governors as Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“It is so fun to get to decide what government does, and from my perspective the place where that happens is in the administration, not in the legislature and not in the courts,” Cate said. “Once you get into a leadership position within the city, county or state, you’re given an immense amount of responsibility and you can make a wide swath of decisions that have real-world impacts on your community.”

Today’s challenges

Photo by Deirdre Flanagan
More photos available on Flickr »

Cate discussed challenges facing California counties, including the financial disparity among counties, an increase in homelessness, the expense of in-home care for an aging population, and handling the legalization of marijuana.

While the state has shown significant budget and economic growth, Cate explained that 78 percent of counties have not experienced that same recovery. Property tax revenues that provide discretionary spending differ wildly among the state’s counties, with ones around the coast tending to thrive while the inner counties struggle.

Cate also noted that while homelessness decreased between 2007 and 2015, there has been a massive increase the past two years.

“We think part of the problem is that 21 of the nation’s top 30 rental markets in terms of price are in California,” Cate said. “We have 2.2 million people who are at what’s called very low income levels, and only 664,000 affordable units. So that right there would tell you how short we are in terms of affordable housing in California.”

In addition, counties can decide whether or not to allow recreational marijuana sales within unincorporated areas. According to Cate, in some counties, there’s a concern that county supervisors could be voted out if not seen as supportive of the cannabis industry.

Cate contended that the cost of in-home supportive services for disabled or elderly people is a major issue for counties. As more people live past 85 than ever before, it is the largest growth group by percentage in California, and people of that age typically need in-home health care.

“The federal government pays 50 percent of those costs, the state 33 percent and counties 17 percent, and we’re going broke,” Cate said. “Just our costs grew $600 million in the last six years.”

Future efforts

Among proposed ballot measures that are of interest to CSAC, Cate mentioned that the association would be fighting the measure to repeal the gas tax, it is monitoring an effort to require a two-thirds vote on all bills related to revenues and fees, and it’s considering the potential impact of a proposed overhaul of Prop. 13 to expand tax breaks for senior homeowners, allowing them to transfer their existing tax assessment to a new home.

“As a city employee, I don’t really think about what the county does for us,” said Stephanie Castro, a second-year Master of Public Administration student at Price who works for the City of Los Angeles. “So what I really learned today is the crucial role of the county between the state and cities. Hearing him articulate exactly how they advocate for money, and how the county and city are facing the same issues, really opened my eyes to how different levels of local government are connected.”