There are 58 counties in the State of California and every one of them has a Board Supervisors. But… why? What power does this board have and what does it do? Are county supervisors full-time positions? How do they relate to the city councils?
These are the questions my neighbors peppered me with one sunny day in our front yard shortly after I’d been appointed to the Contra Costa County Sustainability Commission. I told them what I knew:
- Yes, supervisors are full-time positions and each supervisor has a couple of offices and a few full-time staffers.
- They approve a lot of major zoning and development proposals. Supervisors also sit on a lot of other boards and commissions that control everything from municipal district boundaries to school budgets.
- I didn’t know how they relate to city councils.
So I made a mental note to figure out what the heck a county supervisor is and write a blog post about it. Here is that post.
Focusing specifically on Contra Costa County, according to the county website, the responsibilities of the Board of Supervisors include:
- Appoint non-elected department heads in the county
- Create new positions and commissions (the Sustainability Commission I’m on is only a couple of years old)
- Award contracts to county service providers
- Set the county budget and audit its books
- Oversee tax receipts via the County Board of Equalization
A glance at these minutes from a recent board meeting shows they do a lot more than just that. In just this one meeting they:
- Negotiated contracts with local unions
- Discussed new taxes
- Approved dozens of services contracts
- Established new speed limits
- Approved land use permits
- Replaced commissioners
And that question of the difference between a county board of supervisors and a city council? That distinction lies in the relationship between a county and a city. A county is essentially a subdivision of the state and a city is a “municipal corporation,” which means it is a self-governing entity (but must abide by state law.)
There was a really interesting article in a local Lafayette newspaper describing why Lafayette incorporated into a city in 1968, 50 years ago this year. It is summarized well in this article by the Lafayette Historical Society, which is a great case study on the city-county relationship. The residents of Lafayette were concerned that BART’s expansion into this area would forever change the semi-rural character of this area. Rather than trust the county to preserve it, residents voted by a 55-45 to incorporate into the City of Lafayette. With this vote, the residents would need to form a city council, a planning commission, and raise the funds required to fund the new bureaucracy. It’s likely, though I don’t know for sure, that the cost of running a city caused an earlier vote to incorporate to lose in 1959.
City revenues come from several sources, but the vast majority of revenue comes from property taxes and water, sewer, and garbage collection fees. According to the latest Walnut Creek budget, the county gets 14 cents of every property tax dollar and the city gets 9 cents (most of it, 40 cents, goes to pay for local public schools). It’s important to note that these local agency fees, such as water and sewer fees, cannot exceed the “reasonable cost of providing them.” So unlike a business, cities are not allowed to maximize profits.
Thus the job of county supervisors and city councilmembers alike is to attempt to match revenues to expenses, even when most of those revenues and expenses are fixed by law. Laws continue to change, however, and it is the job of the executive and legislative branches in California to adapt the law to the ever-changing needs of our expanding population.
It’s challenging work, I’m sure, and that’s a large reason why I want to get into it.