Kern County is facing a budget deficit for the upcoming 2011-2012 fiscal year that could easily be within the $25 million to $30 million range. Over the next six months, the board will work with departments to close this gap. The Board of Supervisors held our first round of budget hearings on April 5, scrutinizing general fund expenditures for each county department.
“Quality of life” departments, such as Parks and Recreation, Libraries, and Code Compliance, have already experienced deep cuts over the last few budget years. As a result, 67 percent of the county’s general fund budget is dedicated to Sheriff, Fire, Probation, District Attorney and other criminal justice departments. The board must now look to these public safety departments to find ways to reduce expenditures in the upcoming fiscal year.
In order to reduce the impact of cuts to county departments that provide vital public safety and other services to the people of Kern County, I believe the Board of Supervisors must find solutions to our skyrocketing employee pension costs and health care expenses.
Roughly 60 percent of county employees currently pay nothing toward their own retirement or health care. In an effort to find solutions to the fiscal crisis facing the county and to address the inequities within the county’s work force, the board has proposed a five-year agreement with our unions that asks all county employees to contribute 20 percent of the cost of their own health care in the first year, and over the next four years to increasingly fund their retirement by 25 percent increments each year. In addition, to address our long-term pension costs and $1.5 billion unfunded pension liability (debt), the board has proposed that the “3 at 50” pension be reduced to a “2 at 50” benefit for all new hires in public safety departments.
In 2001, the county paid $40 million in retirement contributions. This fiscal year, the increase in retirement costs to the county is $40 million, for a total of $190 million. Over the next five years, retirement costs are expected to increase another $80 million. If all county employees contributed to their own health care and retirement benefits, and if new safety employees receive a reduced pension benefit payout structure, it would help the county rein in these increasing costs.
The budget crisis is real, and the Board of Supervisors must address these rising benefit costs. If all county employees pay 20 percent toward their own health care costs, it is estimated that the county will realize $4-6 million annually, which will reduce the $25 million to $30 million deficit and hopefully minimize the extent of future cuts in services to the people of Kern.
Likely to compound our budget problems is the recent passing of AB 109, a state law that will shift state prisoners to our local county jail. Kern County would see 1,200 additional inmates crammed into our crowded jail. The state has promised to pay for the inmates it sends to Kern County, but it has already lowered its reimbursement from a low $25,000 per inmate to $11,500, which represents about 40 percent of the actual cost of housing an inmate for a year at Lerdo Jail.
This influx of new inmates will be an even larger strain on the county’s general fund budget. Signed along with AB 109 was AB 111, which is designed to speed up bond payments to counties for new jail construction. Kern County’s Lerdo Jail is severely short of beds and is the oldest county jail in California. It is in desperate need of reconstruction.
The worst impact of the state’s most recent blow to our county is on the amount of time an inmate will stay in jail. Inmates already only serve 20-30 percent of their sentenced time. With these new cuts to prisons and the shift of state inmates to county jails, county inmates will only serve roughly 15-20 percent of their sentence before they are back on the streets in our communities.
Sand Canyon Wind Project update
A new wind energy project proposed for the Sand Canyon area of Tehachapi has many residents in the area concerned about access and other effects the turbines will have on the community and environment. The proposal to place wind turbines in Sand Canyon is still in the very early phases. As it stands now, the Kern County Planning Department is still in the process of retaining a consultant, paid by the project applicant, which will produce the environmental impact report.
The California Environmental Quality Act states that an EIR must be produced, and this document is for the public and decision makers, such as the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, to understand all of the potential environmental impacts of the project and to reveal potential mitigation of these impacts.
I urge interested members of the public to contact the Kern County Planning Department or my office with any questions and concerns regarding this project.
ZACK SCRIVNER represents the Tehachapi area on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.