In Sacramento County, there are suburban areas in both the county and in the various cities. Northern Sacramento (the area north of the American River) is largely city. Eastern Sacramento is largely county, with the exception of Citrus Heights, Folsom, and Rancho Cordova. Southern Sacramento is largely Sacramento City, except for a finger of county suburbs that intrudes into the city, and of course Elk Grove. I suspect most people who don’t own property even know whether they live in county or city because the development pattern is very similar, and the deterioration of infrastructure in the county is only slightly ahead of the cities.
Sacramento County is not able to keep up with what it already has. Potholes are everywhere. Neighborhoods are deteriorating, businesses are boarded up, or are replaced with low-quality businesses such as tattoo parlors and liquor stores. Sacramento County wants to be a place with low taxes, but low taxes equal deterioration. So what the county does to try to make up for a lack of sufficient tax income is to push greenfield developments that will bring in a shot of property tax, and perhaps sales tax, but in the long run will just be more of the same, a drain on the government and economy. Greenfield development never pays for itself in the long run, it is just a transfer of wealth from the future (future taxpayers) to the present (mostly developers, but to some degree government and current taxpayers).
So, a modest proposal (modest in the Swiftian sense). All urban and suburban areas must be in a city. If a new greenfield development occurs, it must either be joined to an existing city, or become its own city (though I think we’ve seen the last of the mega-projects that would support a new city). All existing suburbs in the county will be moved into the nearest city, or form a new city. At the same time, all undeveloped or very sparsely populated areas should be moved outside the cities and back to the county. The map below (also pdf SacCo_pop-density-cities) shows population density with an overlay of the cities. Citrus Heights is the only city that does not contain any significant undeveloped land. Rancho Cordova, Folsom, Elk Grove and the City of Sacramento all contain undeveloped land which should revert to the county. The break points shown are not magical or legally defined. Clearly red (very low density) areas should not be in a city, but orange (low density) is not as clear. Yellow, light green, and dark green are clearly urban or suburban and belong in cities. (Apologies for leaving out Galt and Isleton, but they are not significant in this discussion.)
It is likely to take some time to figure out boundaries, particularly since the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) would have to negotiate boundaries and approve changes. I am not sure what to do with the exurbs, though in some ways it doesn’t matter since they will die out of their own accord.
Once the re-balancing happens, then it should become nearly impossible to move lands between the cities and counties. Greenfield development does not serve anyone except greenfield developers and politicians currently in office, and it impoverishes the future. We already have an overabundance of these types of sprawl subdivisions, enough probably to meet any possible demand and lasting for the foreseeable future. All development would shift to infill. The county would therefore be largely rural, and the county could focus on the far lower level of infrastructure needed to support rural uses. Taxes in the county would drop to a fraction of what they are currently, though of course taxes in the cities would probably increase to nearly counterbalance that reduction.
Some things would be better, some things remain the same. There would likely be less greenfield development, since the county is the largest driver of greenfield development. But there would still be some. North Natomas, south Rancho Cordova, and south Folsom are classic examples of greenfield development. Cities would, I believe, spend their money in a more efficient manner, and would not have to sacrifice tax money to the inefficient county government. By the way, no more deals where the county gets to keep property tax income without having to provide any services. Though it is admirable that the new cities, and their citizens, felt strongly enough about getting out from under the burden and mismanagement of the county that they were willing to give up property tax for a period of time, this should never be allowed again.
The big challenge for existing and new cities would of course be taking on these non-productive medium density areas. The cities will have nearly as hard a time funding infrastructure maintenance and repair as did the county, but at least they will be able to make decisions about where to invest in a more rational manner than the county.