Municide

How Laguna Woods killed itself

America's brief experiment in gerontocracy is over, and it will end not with the metallic bang of two old farts T-boning their sedans in a busy intersection on El Toro Road, but with the pruney whimper of someone who realizes he was killed because he was too stupid to live. The city of Laguna Woods has killed itself.

Residents there wrote their own municipal death warrant when they voted in October for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. As former New York mayor Ed Koch once said, "The people have spoken, and now they must be punished."

First, you've got to understand that Laguna Woods qualifies as a city only in the way shuffleboard is a sport. Until 1999, Laguna Woods was a retirement community called Leisure World, a wealthy, gated enclave that bills itself as "Resort Living, California Style." It had—and has—almost no sales tax, the life blood of city government. Looking for more money, residents of Leisure World decided to incorporate as a city and to call that city Laguna Woods. It seemed to many merely quixotic.

But some of us pointed out—well, me; I pointed out—that quixotic wasn't the right word. No, the right word was avaricious. California cities in the late 1990s were entitled to millions of dollars in transfer payments generated by the state's vehicle license fee (VLF) program—that's "car registration" to you and me, "car tax" to Republicans. Transforming their homeowners association into a city would make Leisure World eligible for millions.

It was (I pointed out, and fuck if I wasn't right) a taxpayer rip-off that funded discrimination. Laguna Woods would be maybe the only city in America whose legal boundaries coincided almost precisely with the boundaries of a single gated retirement community, a city where the mandated minimum age is a spry 55 and the average age is a less spry 78. Simply put, Laguna Woods' residents got the state to pay them to be old.

Saying good-bye to that is cause for celebration. And apparently, in some neurotic way, the residents of Laguna Woods agree with me. In last October's recall election, 52 percent of Laguna Woods residents voted for the recall of Governor Gray Davis. Not content with throwing out the governor, 43 percent of the Laguna Woods' Barcalounger Bolsheviks went on to cast their votes for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and another 15 percent for cranky state Senator Tom McClintock. That means 58 percent of Laguna Woods voters pulled the lever for the only two gubernatorial candidates who promised that their first act as governor would be to slash the hated VLF.

Voting for Schwarzenegger under those conditions was, for the walnut-faced Lilliputians of Laguna Woods, an act of political and fiscal suicide, like unplugging your own life-support system, like chain-smoking Kools between huffs on your oxygen tank—conservative party loyalty taken to its kamikaze extreme. And on Nov. 17, the day he was inaugurated, Schwarzenegger followed through on his campaign pledge to cut the VLF by 66 percent. With a single pen stroke, the governor raised California's state debt by $4 billion. And he had inadvertently, it seems, snuffed Laguna Woods.

Other Orange County cities voted for Schwarzenegger, and they too will be hurt by the cut in the VLF. But nobody will get a pounding like the people of Laguna Woods. Without VLF cash, Laguna Woods has almost nothing. VLF funds accounted for two-thirds of the city's $3.9 million budget, and now the city is likely to lose everything: a city staff of eight and a contract with the county sheriff for a single patrol.

Come January, the city manager told the Register last week, the City Council will try to figure out how to run a $3.9 million city on about $1 million. They might try taking a lesson from the Bible story in which Jesus magically turned a few fish and bread loaves into a feast for a multitude. They might try selling their prescription meds on the streets—the kids are crazy about the Soma. Or they might, the city manager said, "take a look at disincorporation as an option."

But disincorporation is such an ugly word. Let's call it "municide."

"It's a wonderful place to live," a Laguna Woods resident told The New York Times on the day Laguna Woods held its first council meeting. "This is God's country."

Now, apparently, God—the creditor—wants it back.

 
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