While manning a table for the grassroots organization CV Matters at a street festival last year, Michael Kusiak felt like making a point about his adopted hometown of Castro Valley. "Just to be snarky, I would ask random people if they knew where city hall is," Kusiak recalled. Many took the bait and pointed in various directions. But of course, there is no Castro Valley city hall.
Alameda County's largest unincorporated area — with a population of about 61,000 — has minimal elected representation, no city government, no police department, and few if any public employees working on a daily basis for just Castro Valleyans. Although long-time residents seem largely content with the region's county-provided government services, for much of the past decade CV Matters has slowly but painstakingly been laying down the foundation for eventual incorporation — or so it hopes.
Aside from the political symbolism of Castro Valley lacking its own city council, many less-obvious concerns are often raised by residents, such as the action or inaction of county planning and public works departments, and the absence of a centrally located public safety presence. All 140,000 residents of unincorporated parts of Alameda County receive police service from the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. But as many Castro Valley residents point out, the nearest substation is disconnected from their non-city, located on the other side of a natural hillside border with San Leandro.
The sleepy bedroom community nestled between the bayfront East Bay and the Tri-Valley's western hills is a hodge-podge of suburbia and agricultural land. Not much has changed in Castro Valley over the past few decades, except for a BART station, a few large-scale canyon housing developments, and the arrival of a new state-of-the-art county library. Even the partial overhaul of Castro Valley Boulevard, the region's main thoroughfare, serves to highlight the community's separation. Although, the streetscape improvements received positive feedback from the public, they cannot be described as complete. A glossy slurry on the roadway abruptly stops at Redwood Road, a major cross street that leads to Hayward. "Imagine how people in Oakland would react if Libby Schaaf left a major street unfinished," Kusiak griped. "There would be protests."
Castro Valley residents like him have twice sought cityhood, once in 1956 and, more recently in 2002. Each time, voters chose by a wide margin to remain within the cradle of Alameda County's embrace. But a new push for incorporation has bubbled up beneath the surface in recent years, led by a new generation of natives and transplants laying roots in Castro Valley. Yet the murky legislative process for realizing that dream is different than it was two decades ago, and making incorporation pencil out financially would be infinitely more difficult.
Despite the desire of such unincorporated areas to become California cities, the ability to create a self-sustaining municipal government from scratch was greatly diminished during the Great Recession. Incorporation has never been an easy process, but after the state's calamitous budget negotiations in 2011, it became nearly impossible after lawmakers used the Vehicle License Fee to patch holes in their budget.
In a flurry of budget bills that year, SB 89 was approved without any public hearings. The legislation transferred the proceeds of the state's Vehicle License Fee from local control to Sacramento. In previous years, the Vehicle License Fee had served as the seed capital for nascent cities — essentially an early angel investor in a start-up city, accounting for roughly one-fourth of a new city's revenue. Without such revenues, places like Castro Valley, which had demonstrated 11 years earlier that incorporation would be economically feasible, would now be unlikely to achieve that status. And ever since the passage of SB 89, no unincorporated area in California has again achieved cityhood.
"When the state gets in budget trouble they somehow always mess with local finances; that's been happening for decades," said Dan Carigg, a legislative liaison for the League of California Cities. "Right now, these folks don't have much to work with. There is a sense that people are not get what they need from their local government bodies. That they're giving more to their counties than they are receiving."
An assembly bill co-authored by Sacramento Assemblymember Ken Cooley and Hayward Assemblymember Bill Quirk, whose district includes much of unincorporated Alameda County, sought to allow places like Castro Valley to once again "have those conversations again," as Carigg put it. Specifically, AB 818 would seek to offset SB 89 by allowing county treasurers to set aside Vehicle License Fees for areas incorporating after 2012.
Yet according to a legislative analysis, 15 bills similar to AB 818 have been introduced and failed since 2012, including one last year by the same authors. AB 818 breezed through its first assembly committee last March, but slammed into a wall when it arrived at the assembly's Committee on Appropriations, where it was relegated to the legislative purgatory known as the "suspense file."
So aside from armed insurrection, Kusiak acknowledges that there is virtually no path for Castro Valley residents to incorporate without legislators in Sacramento and Alameda County having to perform the heavy lifting. "You have to solve one thing before you solve another problem," Kusiak said. "It's frustrating. But we're not going to stop. At least, I'm not." Thus, the hopes of Castro Valley's backers rest on the same people and entities that have in the past offered something between ambivalence and tacit support for incorporation.