Legislative Analyst's Office, May 1998

California Counties

A Look at Program Performance

Part IV

Roads and Libraries

While many county programs address specific crises, or help people in need, counties also administer programs that benefit all Californians on a regular basis. For example, counties build and maintain roads, operate libraries, administer elections, provide animal control, and inspect restaurants for sanitary conditions.

Ideally, Californians would have access to cross-county information measuring outcomes of all of these programs. Unfortunately, few such data are available. This final chapter focuses on two county program areas where reasonably good information does exist: roads and libraries.

In the case of both of these programs, counties have significant authority to adjust the level of services they provide their residents. For example, counties may add a lane to a county road, open a library branch office, and adjust their book purchasing or road maintenance budgets. Counties typically finance their road programs with state subventions of gas tax revenues, and their libraries with property taxes or other county general purpose revenues.

How Safe Are County Roads?

In a state as mobile as California, traffic safety is a major concern. California counties are responsible for monitoring the safety of all roads in their unincorporated areas (except state highways and freeways), and making improvements to increase safety. For example, counties: install lights, signals, and signs; mark lane lines; build additional lanes; and correct dangerous curves and road conditions.

While county road safety improvements play an important role in promoting traffic safety, a county's traffic accident rate is related to other factors as well. These factors include driver behavior, the availability of alternate routes, climate, and the level of traffic enforcement. All in all, county road safety improvements probably lower a county's accident rate at the margin, and help explain some of the large differences among county accident rates.

Figure 15 displays the traffic accident rate on county roads for the 20 counties with the most miles traveled on county roads. The figure indicates whether each county's accident rate is above, at, or below the statewide average. Non-injury-causing accidents are not reflected in the figure. The accident rate of the highest county on the figure (Sacramento) is four and a half times that of the lowest county on the figure (Santa Clara).

Road Conditions Ahead

In addition to making traffic safety improvements, counties are responsible for maintaining most roads in their unincorporated areas. To maintain a road's surface quality, counties periodically add seal coats and repave. When pavement is not well maintained: riding comfort is diminished; vehicles must travel at reduced speeds and may incur damage; and road conditions deteriorate rapidly--often resulting in higher overall road maintenance costs in the long run.

Ideally, each county (or transportation planning agency) would compile comparable pavement quality information. While such data are not regularly compiled, in 1996 the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) inspected pavement conditions on segments of over 1,000 randomly selected county roads, excluding minor residential streets. These road segments averaged one to two miles in length. In the case of 16 counties, we believe Caltrans inspected enough roads to estimate the overall quality of county pavement conditions.

As Figure 16 displays, in six counties more than 25 percent of county roads were in poor or very poor condition. In these cases, the pavement is so deteriorated that it has large potholes, deep cracks, or signs of pavement distress across at least 50 percent of the surface. In contrast, less than 10 percent of the roads in four other counties are in such a deteriorated condition. In reviewing the data, we note that the quality of road pavement often appears to be correlated with better road safety.

Is the Library Open?

Most counties have a public library department organized under the state's County Free Library Law. These libraries provide services to county residents not served by a city or special district library.

Counties have great discretion in operating their libraries. Some counties devote most of their library resources to a downtown library. Other counties maintain many branch offices and send bookmobiles to rural areas. Because of these differences, Figure 17 provides three different "looks" at library accessibility for the 15 largest county free library systems:

As Figure 17 indicates, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties provide high levels of service in terms of library staff and hours. Fresno County, in contrast, has a lower level of staff, but more outlets.

Books in Circulation

County library systems provide many services to meet the information and reading needs of its residents: books, periodicals, reference materials, Internet access, presentations, and more. While there are little data available comparing counties on this full range of services, county free library systems report information on the number of books and other materials residents check out. We believe the level of materials circulated serves as a good indicator of resident satisfaction and library accessibility.

Figure 18 compares counties on the basis of annual circulation per resident served. In general, residents check out more books in counties where libraries have more staff and are open longer, such as Santa Clara and San Francisco. Some county library systems achieve high circulation levels, however, with limited library availability. Solano and Alameda County libraries, for example, both report circulating about six documents per resident even though they have low or modest levels of library operation, staffing, and outlets.

Figure 18 also provides information on county library expenditures per document circulated. While most county costs are in the range of $2.75 to $3.25 per document, some county costs are considerably higher. These higher costs could be due to higher levels of non-circulation-related library services, higher staff salaries, lower efficiency, or other factors.

Roads and Libraries Conclusion

Given the wide range of general services that counties provide their residents, it is unfortunate that data limitations permit inclusion of only four figures summarizing county performance in two program areas: roads and libraries. Ideally, data would be available on county elections, planning and building permit issuance, transit availability, restaurant inspection responsibilities, and more. We also would have liked to include more complete information on county roads and library programs, such as road congestion, travel times, and library customer satisfaction. With more complete information, county residents and policymakers would be better able to gauge the quality of county services.

In reviewing the information presented in this chapter, we find that Orange and Santa Clara Counties consistently rate highly. Road quality in Sacramento and Los Angeles Counties appears to be particularly poor. In Fresno County, road quality appears high, while library services are very low.


To our knowledge, this small report represents California's first compilation of broad, cross-county program performance measures. While acknowledging the limitations of this report--that is, some program measures are imperfect, others are missing, and others may reflect policies that a county has already correct--edit is instructive to review the data as a whole to see if any trends are apparent. If some counties regularly performed better than others, the factors which contributed to these positive outcomes could be examined.

Based on our review and discussions with counties, we developed three plausible--yet overlapping--theories to explain why some counties might perform better than others. Specifically:

Theory One: Counties With Higher Per Capita General Purpose Revenues Might Perform Better. Counties with higher per capita general purpose revenues (money counties may spend on programs of their own choosing) have greater ability to expand programs to meet demand. As we discuss in Why County Revenues Vary: State Laws and Local Conditions Affecting County Finance, counties receive very different levels of general purpose revenues.

Theory Two: Counties With a Greater Percentage of High Income Residents Might Perform Better. Counties with more high income residents may face less demand for criminal justice, indigent health, and social service programs. This may allow a county to "do a better job" administering these services to a smaller proportion of their residents, and leave more funds to pay for other county services, such as roads and libraries. In addition, counties with more high income residents may find it easier to raise fees, taxes, or assessments. Even if these additional funds are not available for general program purposes, the extra funds may relieve fiscal pressures on a county and increase fiscal flexibility.

Theory Three: Counties With A Smaller Proportion of Residents Needing Services Might Perform Better. Because of differences in local economies, demographics, and other factors, county program caseloads differ in size. Differences in county caseload sizes do not always reflect differences in resident incomes. Counties with lower demand for indigent health, social services, and criminal justice services may find it easier to achieve successful outcomes.

What We Found

We examined the performance data in conjunction with information on county general purpose revenues, resident income, unemployment, and caseload size. In many cases, our sample size was too small to perform a statistical analysis, so our comments are drawn from a qualitative evaluation of the data, unless stated otherwise.

Overall, we found some support for the theory that counties with more high income residents perform better. Specifically, the two counties that typically ranked the highest in our report (San Mateo and Santa Clara), as well as two counties which ranked highly but for which data were limited (Marin and San Francisco), stand out as the state's counties with the wealthiest residents. We note that three of these four counties also have relatively low social service and criminal justice program caseloads (San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin), and three counties appear to have higher than average per capita general purpose revenues (San Mateo, Marin, and San Francisco).

Beyond these four very wealthy counties, however, we found that the relationship between county performance and resident income, per capita general purpose revenues, and caseload became much less clear. That is, some counties with low resources, poor people, and high caseloads performed much better than would be expected. Examined statistically, we found only one measure in which program performance correlated positively with income or county revenues--library circulation.

Other Findings

Virtually every county performed well in at least one program area. For example, although Merced and Fresno Counties have low per capita general purpose revenues, rising crime rates, and high unemployment rates, both counties showed considerable success in their child protection, welfare, and child support programs. Los Angeles and Sacramento Counties posted large declines in the rate of violent crime, and provided a relatively high level of sheriff and/or probation services. San Diego, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties rated well across several measures, a level of performance which is particularly notable given the very low level of per capita general purpose revenues available to these counties. Alameda and Contra Costa Counties had more success than many other urban counties in collecting child support payments and in road safety.

What Can Be Concluded From the Report?

While this report poses more questions than it answers, the process of developing this report resulted in three conclusions.

First, in order to undertake a more complete review of county program performance, and to "sort out" the influences of caseload characteristics and other variables, California needs more information about county programs. Throughout the book we identify the type of information needed and the appendix provides a summary of the information needed to assess county performance in administering programs of statewide interest. We note that in several program areas--drug and alcohol, mental health, and child welfare services--additional data collection efforts are underway.

Second, there is probably some relationship between county program performance and resident income, county revenues, and caseload size. The extent of this relationship, however, will not be apparent until the state has better measures of county program performance.

Finally, quality county program management matters. In developing this report, we found many examples of exemplary county efforts. Sometimes, counties achieved considerable program successes despite significant resource limitations and caseload demands. Given the importance to California of successful county programs--these efforts are particularly commendable.


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