CALIFORNIA (KTXL) — While traveling through California you may notice communities labeled as cities, towns or “census-designated areas.” What do these titles mean and what makes them different?

In California, there’s actually no real difference between a city and a town. State law dictates a city can go from calling itself a city to calling itself a town – or vice versa – with a four-fifths vote of the local governing body.

Sean Rabe, the town manager of the Northern California town of Loomis, said his community chose to be a town because it provided a greater connection with the area’s rural and agricultural history.

A town does not always mean a community is small, however. The town of Los Gatos in Santa Clara County has a population of around 32,000 people. Apple Valley in San Bernardino County has a population of almost 76,000 people.

Then there are communities like Foresthill in northern Placer County, which is considered a Placer County Community, an unincorporated area and a census-designated place. All of these titles mean the same thing though: The community has not gone through the incorporation process to become a city or town.

A census-designated place is a populated area drawn out by the United States Census Bureau that provides similar statistical information to an incorporated place. A census-designated place does not have permanent boundaries like a city or town might and there is not a functioning government structure, a city council, within the boundaries.

In a census-designated place, law enforcement and firefighting services will usually fall upon the county that the unincorporated area is in.

If a community wants to become incorporated, it will begin working with the California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions (CALAFCO), which is responsible for laying out the procedures for a community to become an incorporated city or town.

The most recent city to become incorporated in California was the city of Jurupa Valley in Riverside County on July 1, 2011.

The oldest incorporated city in California is San Francisco, which was founded on Feb. 18, 1850.

According to CALAFCO, the process of becoming incorporated can be a lengthy and expensive one. Because of how lengthy and detailed the process is, CALAFCO created a set of guidelines for communities looking to incorporate.

It begins with a group of residents forming a committee, which will lay out the goals of the incorporation, raise funds, collect signatures, work with CALAFCO, testify at hearings and negotiate changes in the proposal.

Working with CALAFCO requires the committee to pay for fees and staff costs, among other expenses. These costs can amount to up to more than $100,000, according to CALAFCO.

CALAFCO says that some of the benefits of incorporating can be establishing a local city council and an area providing its own services like:

  • Law enforcement
  • Fire protection
  • Water and sewer
  • City planning
  • Public works
  • Local parks, recreation and libraries

An incorporated area can create all of those new services, while still being able to use county services like:

  • Welfare and child protection
  • Health services
  • Jails, courts and probation
  • Regional parks
  • Elections and voters services

A newly incorporated city or town may not create its own public safety departments at first, explained Loomis’ town manager. It can be more cost-effective to use larger agencies for public safety needs.

“That is what Loomis does,” Rabe said. “They also tend to continue using whatever fire protection services were in place before incorporation (in 1984). In Loomis’ case, it was the Loomis Fire District before it was merged with South Placer Fire. It’s much more cost-efficient to use those larger agencies when you are in a small city.”

Once a city or town can build a large enough budget it may decide to create its own public safety agencies, he said.