Kern County is finally getting some good budget news.
The news isn’t good enough to pull the county out of its structural deficit, and there are still dark clouds threatening on the horizon, but a combination of frugal spending and positive property tax trends has shaved the county’s $38.5 million deficit down to $28.3 million.
And that means the county budget will balance using only $3.98 million in reserves — to cover retirement cost increases in the Kern County Fire Department — rather than the $8.7 million county leaders had planned to spend just a few short weeks ago.
On Tuesday, July 18, the County Administrative Office will report the details to the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Here are the basics.
The books have been closed on the 2016-17 fiscal year and the county netted $28.6 million in carry over balance.
County coffers always have a carry over balance.
The preliminary budget assumed there would be between $10 million and $11 million that the county could use to fund its 2017-18 operations, said Deputy County Administrative Officer Elsa Martinez.
Obviously, the county got a lot more.
Also, new property tax estimates for this fiscal year were released last week by County Auditor-Controller Jon Lifquist. Those numbers included a $5.2 billion increase in property tax value, the amount upon which county taxes are based.
Lifquist reported a $5.9 million increase earlier in the week but later corrected that amount, saying there was a error in that larger, earlier number.
Still, that value increase — powered by a stronger real estate market and an increase in the price of oil to $50 a barrel in January — is significantly better than the county had been expecting.
Assistant County Administrative Officer Nancy Lawson said the increase in property taxes is exceptionally good news for the county.
“Standing where we are today, if we consider property tax an ongoing revenue source, then it’s reducing the deficit,” she said.
What is also heartening, she said, is the reason for the county’s higher carryover balance: County departments, she said, are fighting hard to keep costs low. They’re holding jobs open and thinking about budgeting as a long-term process, Lawson said.
“We asked them for a three-year (budget) plan,” she said. “That was a big change for them.”
Budgets were typically developed only for the coming fiscal year. Thinking on a three-year time frame was a stretch.
“A lot of them embraced that. They really thought ahead,” she said. “They don’t want to get in a position where they have to lay off or have extreme service level impacts.”
That attitude seems to be paying off for the county’s overall budget picture.
“If your deficit is going down and you’re still cutting then you get over that deficit quicker,” she said.
So what is the county doing with the extra carryover money?
Lawson said the county will set aside most of the revenue to pay for a total $12.5 million increase in county pension costs that will begin a three-year phase-in during the 2018-19 fiscal year.
That protects county departments, she said, from having to cut deeper into their operations to fund pensions.
“The departments saved it and we’re going to give it back to them to cover their retirement costs,” Lawson said. Without that money the county “would be looking at a much larger deficit in 2018-19 and I would have to be using reserves.”
But she is also careful not to get carried away with all the good news.
The bump in property taxes is great, but it could go away.
Kern County’s budget deficit was created over the past two years as the price of oil dropped from more than $100 a barrel to $35 a barrel.
The increase to $50 a barrel has given Kern County some breathing room.
But the actual market price of oil has dropped since Jan. 1, when the budget value of property taxes was set.
Lifquist has said it is a definite possibility that next year’s oil valuation will be lower.
Lawson said that would be another blow to the county’s finances.
But for now things are looking strong.
“We’re still in a deficit,” Lawson said. But there’s a little brighter tone in her voice when she says that these days.