Should tiny Maricopa disincorporate as a city? Grand jury raises the possibility again

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MARICOPA, Calif. (KGET) — The Kern County grand jury has issued a report on the status of the City of Maricopa, the smallest of Kern County’s 11 cities.

The report’s implied bottom-line question is this: With a thin tax base and a falling population, should it even be an incorporated city? It’s a topic the grand jury has raised before about the tiny high desert city.

Downtown Maricopa’s spine is State Route 33. It’s not the only street in Maricopa but passers-through can be forgiven if they assume it is. There’s not much here in this city of about 1,200 people, 420 homes and three operational businesses.

The grand jury, which issued a report Thursday on Maricopa’s fiscal health, doesn’t come right out and say no, but it does pose the question: should this even be a city, legally speaking?

The report raises concerns about Maricopa’s increasing obligations for county fire protection, among other concerns. Residents of Maricopa, the grand jury report says, could end up with a substantial financial burden as a result — and this is a city with a 14 percent unemployment rate, 25 poverty rate and negative population growth over the past three years.

The county itself, for the record, is not suggesting Maricopa relinquish its municipal status and become an incorporated town like Lamont — a small Lamont at that.

But, as County Chief Operations Officer Jim Zervis concedes, Maricopa is in fact paying only a fraction of the cost of its county fire protection.

“Maricopa is really an outlier because of their size and their small tax base,” he said. “There’s no way they could ever afford to pay for the full cost of a full time fire department like Kern County Fire provides.”

In fact, it’s not close.

”There’s a portion that comes from the fire fund property tax but in Maricopa’s case that’s only about $30,000 a year,” Zervis said. “The net cost for Maricopa’s station is about $1.5 million a year.”

Maricopa is one of several Kern County cities that come up short when it comes to covering the cost of their county fire services — but none to the extent of Maricopa. 

But then none are like Maricopa.

“Let’s face it. Maricopa is an anachronism,” said city administrator Eric Ziegler. “This is a town that could never be incorporated under today’s standards. But it’s been here since 1911. It’s 110 years old. When I came to Taft in ‘93 to be city manager it didn’t take long to find this place, and I became enamored in a way because you’ve got to have respect for the people in a community of a hardscrabble town.”

Maricopians — if you can find any out and about in the 100-degree heat — will tell you they have a lot of pride in their city. But how much does civic pride contribute to the rising cost of being an actual municipality? That is the question.

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