April 27, 2008

Needles in a haystack

Lost in California shuffle, town's City Council considers secession

Las Vegas Review-Journal

NEEDLES, Calif. - Doomsayers predict a chunk of California will break off into the ocean after a cataclysmic earthquake.

But long before that happens, the Golden State might lose a splinter on its east side because of a political storm.

Some city leaders in Needles, a small border town cradled by three states, want to secede from California and merge with Nevada. Given the geography, Clark County probably would inherit the town and its 5,000 residents.

Those screaming for secession say they are fed up with San Bernardino County being so tight with funding. Needles' size and remote location at California's eastern edge have marginalized it politically, they contend.

Resentment boiled over when the county came through with considerably less aid for a struggling city-run hospital than the City Council had expected.

Council members went beyond idle grousing. They voted last week to form a nine-person panel to study the pros and cons of seceding.

"I think it's doable," Councilman Roy Mills said. "It's something Needles needs to pursue."

Mayor Jeff Williams, however, thinks switching to Nevada is an unrealistic course, fraught with hurdles.

Both state legislatures must approve, as well as a majority of voters from both counties, Williams said. Plus, Congress must sign off on it because the state line would be redrawn.

Williams worries that any attempt to annex Needles into Nevada will be a futile exercise that will alienate San Bernardino County and make Needles residents look foolish.

"It's like our council threw a fit like a child," Williams said. "They are thinking with their emotions and not their minds."

He questioned whether Clark County would adopt a city that would go this far to embarrass its home county because it didn't get its way.

'stepchild syndrome'

On the other side of the state line, Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine said information was too sparse now to seriously discuss annexing Needles.

The revenue the county would gain by taking Needles would have to justify the added costs, Valentine said. "It would have to be in the interest of Clark County residents."

Needles should study all the ramifications closely before making such a drastic move, she said. City officials might discover drawbacks, such as the Nevada Legislature possibly wielding more power over cities than California lawmakers do.

As an alternative to breaking from the state, the city is looking at how Needles might form its own county within California.

However, Williams and Mills both say that option would have a different set of snags, and fewer advantages. Because a California county must have at least 10,000 residents, Needles would have to merge with either Barstow or Blythe, Williams said.

And a county that small would be overshadowed by relative giants like San Bernardino, Mills said. "My personal preference would be to join Nevada."

Needles would benefit from Nevada's wellspring of gaming revenue, and the town could add slot machines and perhaps a casino or two, Mills said.

Nevada could tap into the stream of travelers who drive through Needles, he said, noting that the nearby state-border station tallies 4 million cars yearly.

Nevada also would be more likely to upgrade a stretch of Interstate 40 that runs through Needles, a project that is decades overdue, Mills said.

If Needles joins Nevada, it would be 115 miles from the Clark County seat in Las Vegas, he said, compared with 215 miles to the current seat of San Bernardino County.

"We're so far removed out here, we don't even feel part of it," Mills said. "The red-headed stepchild syndrome."

pros and cons

Needles is Mayberry with a rugged, desert edge and 125-degree summer heat.

It derives its name from spirelike rock formations. The town sprang from the railroad built across the Colorado River in the late 1800s. A chunk of Route 66 stretches through the town, the architecture of which denotes a hodge-podge of eras: turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, tract houses and 1960s eateries.

At the local Burger Hut, two Bullhead City, Ariz., construction workers munched on fast food and tossed out opinions about Needles joining Nevada.

It wouldn't hurt if California, one the country's largest states, got a bit smaller and Nevada got a little bigger, said Louie Vasquez, 51.

Needles could bring in gambling and save folks a drive to Laughlin, Vasquez said. "I'm not a gambler, but I'm sure that people would like to see it."

Everyone could use another casino, said James Medina, 24, as long as generic gaming dens didn't nudge out the distinct local restaurants.

"I enjoy places like this," he said, motioning to Burger Hut.

Down the road at the county-run library, Becky Court, a patron, talked of how she receives money from the state and must be a California resident to qualify.

If Needles joined Nevada, she'd have to move 90 miles to the nearest California city, Court said. "I love it here and don't want to move."

Tena McGee-Scott, a library employee, said secession was the silliest idea she'd ever heard. Yes, Needles could set up casinos if it joined Nevada, and, yes, the city could use the money, she said. But she questioned whether that was really good for Needles.

"I've been here 20 years," she said. "If I want to be in Nevada, I'll move to Nevada."

hospital funding

The local hospital is the catalyst for the rift between Needles and the county's board of supervisors.

When Life Point, the company that ran the city's 25-bed hospital, announced it would pull out of California, the county offered to take over.

But falling home values and a tightening state budget took a bite out of revenues, forcing the county to scale back on the long-term aid it could offer the hospital, said Brad Mitzelfelt, a county supervisor whose district includes Needles.

Mitzelfelt said he tried to sell his fellow supervisors on keeping the hospital at its current level of care for awhile, but to no avail.

They instead proposed eliminating the emergency room and overnight care, reducing the hospital to a large outpatient clinic, he said.

That plan was unacceptable to most City Council members, Williams said. They decided to keep it a full-service hospital, using a $1.3 million lease buyout from Life Point to cover costs until money from billing flowed in.

The city is now running the hospital on "a wing and a prayer" with no business plan, Williams said, calling that a high-risk gamble.

long odds

If history is any measure, the odds of Needles seceding are slimmer than winning a million-dollar jackpot.

Local governments' attempts to break from home states have rarely been fruitful since the 19th century.

Needles isn't the first city in a neighboring state to seek to join Nevada. In 2002, the U.S. House gave the go-ahead for Wendover, Utah, to merge with West Wendover, in Nevada, but Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., blocked the bill before it could reach the Senate.

Mitzelfelt argued that over the years San Bernardino County has funded many projects in Needles and created local jobs by putting a courthouse and other government centers there.

But he understands the city's frustration over the hospital, and wishes them the best in what will be a tough quest.

"Bordering cities should have the option of going to another state," Mitzelfelt said. "It shouldn't be an insurmountable challenge."

State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, said he backs Needles' effort to join a more business-friendly state. The city has lost bids for big retailers that went to nearby Nevada and Arizona, both of which have lower taxes and fewer regulations than California, Ashburn said.

Ashburn said he will push for California and Nevada to do a joint study on how feasible it is for Needles to secede. Ultimately, it comes down to what's in the best interest of the citizens, he said.

"It's the kind of creative thinking that needs to take place. State lines are arbitrary, and things change."