Hundreds of thousands of dollars now being used to install and maintain roadside emergency call boxes may soon be diverted to combat Bakersfield's growing litter problem.
And the plan appears to be expanding from what was originally a Bakersfield-only concept to a county-wide effort.
The Kern Council of Governments at its meeting Thursday night, in a unanimous voice vote, directed its staff to move forward on a plan that could redirect about $300,000 from its call box fund to pay for additional litter cleanup and enforcement efforts.
KernCOG Executive Director Ahron Hakimi said he hopes to present a proposed contract with the city of Bakersfield to the council for its consideration at next month's meeting. Another contract with the county of Kern and separate agreements with the Kern County Sheriff's Office and possibly the California Highway Patrol could come later this year.
Each contract will have to be approved by the council before it becomes active.
"Staff has already begun discussions with Caltrans to see how we can reduce the number of call boxes," Hakimi said.
KernCOG, a body of county government and local city representatives, addresses regional transportation issues.
The agency collects $1 from vehicle registration fees in Kern County to maintain 574 roadside emergency call boxes for drivers. But the call boxes are becoming increasingly obsolete, Hakimi said, as cell phone use becomes more common.
Caltrans and the CHP must give their approval, however, before any call boxes are removed. And while no one Thursday was advocating for the removal of all of the boxes, the council was in agreement that significant numbers could safely be deactivated.
"Are we going to reduce the call box overhead?" asked Chip Holloway, a council member from Ridgecrest.
If everything works out, roughly $100,000 from the call box fund would go to the city of Bakersfield, $100,000 to Kern County and a similar amount to either the CHP, the Kern County Sheriff's Office, or a combination of both -- for targeted litter enforcement.
KernCOG Chairman and Bakersfield Councilman Harold Hanson, representing the city of Bakersfield, did assert that even without contracts for additional enforcement, law enforcement agencies should be doing more to stop and issue citations to those who blithely toss litter and trash out their car windows and doors.
One idea now under consideration would pay residents at the Bakersfield Homeless Center to clean up litter along the highways through Bakersfield. Using jail inmates through a contract with the county is also a possibility, but such a contract is not likely to be ready for consideration before July, Hakimi said.
As far as additional enforcement goes, can law enforcement officers be expected to concentrate on going after litterbugs -- even when there's funding for it?
It's an important question, Hakimi said. "That's why the contract won't be locked in."
If the number of enforcement actions don't go up significantly, the contract can be ended.
At last month's meeting, the plan seemed to be Bakersfield-centric, an idea that didn't go over well with some representatives of outlying communities.
"We had a concern," said Rueben Pascual, a member of the Delano City Council who represents the north-county city on the KernCOG board. "At last month's meeting, it seemed like everything was going to Bakersfield."
But the focus of the plan became more inclusive by Thursday night's meeting, he said. The plan could redirect about $300,000 from a call box fund to pay for additional litter cleanup and enforcement efforts.