On Aug. 27, the Board of Supervisors adopted our final 2019-2020 fiscal year budget, and I’m extremely pleased that this budget will completely close the General Fund deficit of $44.5 million that was identified four years ago.
This large deficit was caused by a significant drop in oil prices over two years and steep increases in employee pension costs (70 percent) over the last 10 years. It took a lot of hard work from county employees and department heads to get there, but our four-year mitigation plan to close the deficit has paid off, and the board officially declared that the county’s fiscal emergency is over!
Departments took an average reduction of 12.5 percent over the four years. I say average because not all reductions were equal. The board never cut the Fire Department’s budget during the four-year fiscal crisis, and other public safety departments, such as Sheriff and District Attorney, were spared cuts the last two budget years to ensure public safety was prioritized.
As we made our way through the mitigation plan, we found that we were able to use $24 million less in reserve funds to balance our budgets, and that’s due in part to major savings realized through efficiency gains and purchasing changes. For instance, we changed elements of the county’s health care plan that saved the county $10 million, and we switched to leasing a portion of our vehicles, saving the county nearly $2 million in the first contract period. With more than 80 projects completed with our Launch Kern initiative, county employees are leading the way in Lean Six Sigma principles and changing the face of local government.
Another reason that we were able to use less of our reserve funds than we anticipated is that our economy is improving. There are a couple of good indicators of this: First, property values in residential, commercial and agricultural sectors are on the rise. Second, Kern County continues to gain recognition by large companies as a great place to do business. We’ve had impressive additions to the county in the last 18 months. Amazon and Hadco both broke ground near Meadows Field Airport. L’Oreal and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino decided to make significant investments at the southern end of the county, and Dollar General is increasing their operations and adding staff.
All of this is good for the economy and the employment outlook for our residents. In the last three years, we’ve added nearly 5,000 jobs to the county through new and growing businesses. We have great partners in our economic diversity efforts and we’re committed to continue to grow the number and types of industries doing business here in Kern County.
As our economy improves and our fiscal outlook strengthens, the board is turning our attention to addressing our recruitment and retention challenges among our own employees. The board offered a recent proposal to our Kern County Sheriff’s deputies and command staff that would make them the highest paid local law enforcement agency in Kern County, and among the highest in the Central Valley. We recognize that recruitment and retention in law enforcement is increasingly difficult, and we’re doing what we can to address it. Overall, the offer we proposed represents an additional $11.1 million investment in the Sheriff’s Office for pay raises, signing bonuses for new deputies, funds a recruitment academy for the fourth year in a row, and purchases new patrol vehicles.
Finally, this budget continues the board’s commitment to funding our spay/neuter efforts at Animal Services, maintains library hours, and invests nearly $3 million in improvements at parks throughout the county. To help address the severe increase in homelessness, a situation that is not unique to Kern County and has spiked over the last two years in California much more than anywhere in the nation, the board designated $2 million in this budget for mitigation measures to tackle the problem.
Although we’ve closed the General Fund deficit, significant challenges remain at the county. State laws that reduced criminal penalties have made it harder for our law enforcement to keep our communities safe. The costs of pension benefits for county employees, increasing nearly $200 million over the last 10 years, are rising at a faster pace than our current revenue streams. The liberal majority in Sacramento continues to push legislation and policies that imperil one of Kern County’s largest and most economically significant industries: oil and gas production. That’s why the Board of Supervisors and county departments are continually working to improve efficiency in county government, and to attract private sector investment that will further diversify our economy. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made in these two areas, but our work is far from over.
As your Second District Supervisor, I am committed to making Kern County a prosperous, safe and successful place for all, a place where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential, a place we are proud to call our home.
Supervisor Zack Scrivner represents the second district of Kern County.