Supervisors have agreed to send a question to voters this November, at the urging of Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
That question: Would you support paying one penny on the dollar more in general purpose sales tax to improve vital services in the county’s unincorporated areas, such as public safety and protection, code enforcement and park improvements, with the oversight of a taxpayer advisory committee made up of unincorporated area residents?
Unincorporated area residents can answer that question when they go to the polls in November. Until then, the sheriff will be providing an extraordinary amount of public education on why this question is necessary, and why now.
Here is our fiscal situation: We are currently addressing a general fund deficit created by a significant drop in property tax revenue due to oil prices, compounded by the rising cost of doing business (labor, capital, material, utilities, maintenance and state mandates) and a lack of growth in other revenue sources.
Sales tax revenue today is lower than it was 10 years ago. We have worked very hard to get 60 percent of the deficit solved and by the end of 2020 our plan will have cut annual county general fund spending by $40 million, with $15 million of that cut coming from public safety. It is important to know that the majority of general fund spending, historically, is prioritized by the Board of Supervisors for public protection, principally for the sheriff.
We are aligning our spending with the revenue we have available — just look at our budget. We are implementing Lean Six Sigma across the county, saving millions, progress you can track at Launch Kern's website. The sheriff has implemented efficiencies resulting in $3 million in cost savings just this past year alone.
We have the lowest defined benefit pension for general employees allowable under state law — the lowest. We are doubling down on economic development and have shifted to a position where we are now working on projects that could create thousands of jobs. We’re doing the hard work. Now what?
Public protection is expensive in an 8,000 square mile county. The cost of that business is increasing, not decreasing. Crime is clearly an issue, and actions by the state have made it worse. How do we meet the growing demand for community and deputy safety and stay competitive with other law enforcement agencies?
Bakersfield, if their residents agree to the one-penny sales tax increase before them in November, will surely hire sheriff’s deputies away from Kern, making our existing competitive disadvantage worse. The sheriff says he needs to retain his deputies, who are leaving in droves, and he wants more deputies on the streets across the county. He believes the $35 million in additional general fund revenue generated by a one-penny increase in the sales tax will help him do just that.
Voters interested in the future success of our county should make a well-informed decision.
Ryan J. Alsop is the Chief Administrative Officer for Kern County. Follow him on Twitter: @KernCAO. The opinions expressed are his own.