The Bakersfield economy is rebounding from recession, officials told more than 320 members of the local business community at the annual State of the City address Tuesday, although three ongoing lawsuits could cost the city more than $1 million this fiscal year -- and ultimately more than $5 million.
"It's been my honor and privilege to report to you today that our city is strong," an ebullient Mayor Harvey Hall told the sell-out crowd at the Marriott hotel downtown.
City officials said sales tax revenues are up 2.5 percent, property tax revenues are up 1 percent, and the so-called bed tax paid by hotel guests is up 2.5 percent.
The city issued 425 residential construction permits for single-family homes and 17 commercial building permits during the first four months of 2013, Hall said. They represent increases of 49 percent and 42 percent respectively compared to the same period in 2012.
Residential foreclosures fell to 135 for the first five months of this year, a drop of 54 percent compared to the same period in 2012. Median home prices rose 37 percent to $188,000 during the first five months of the year, a trend Hall said he expects to continue.
"We expect housing prices in the next 12 months to rise 19 percent, so get your For Sale signs out and get ready," the mayor said.
Also on the rise is the city's police force, which was expanded to 389 sworn officers in the 2013-2014 city budget the Bakersfield City Council approved June 26.
"Public safety has been and will continue to be the City Council's highest priority," said Rhonda Smiley, assistant to City Manager Alan Tandy. "There is certainly no doubt ... that we need to get more police officers on the street."
Smiley pointed out that the city has been able to restore 26 positions cut during the economic downturn between 2008 and 2011.
Ten of those positions are for sworn police officers -- and at its mid-fiscal year budget review in late 2013, the City Council is expected to consider adding more sworn officers.
The city also is planning what Smiley called a "strategic review of Bakersfield Police Department operations."
"We're going to look at all our priorities," Smiley said. "We also want to take a look at what other cities are doing to reduce their crime rates."
Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson said the review comes in response to a request from Vice Mayor Ken Weir that the department look at decreasing its response times.
The police department will hire a consultant to examine police department procedures, using law enforcement money from the state, Williamson said.
"Sometimes it's just better to have a fresh set of eyes on these things," Williamson said after the address. "They may come in and say you have the appropriate numbers of officers, they may say you need more, they may say you need to be deployed in a certain way."
New Ward 1 City Councilman Willie Rivera said the review could benefit the police department and residents.
"I think the police department -- and they've admitted this, and said they're going to work on it, work on other ways to reduce response times," said Rivera, who was sworn in June 26. "That includes putting more officers on the street, and being there to support the officers."
Smiley also told those assembled that the city faces three potential threats with a combined estimated impact of more than $6 million, to an otherwise sunny and mild economic forecast.
First, the California Department of Finance continues to refuse to hand over $9.7 million in former redevelopment funds earmarked for city projects.
"Basically what we see it as is another money grab," Smiley said.
The city of Bakersfield has requested a change of venue in its lawsuit against the Department of Finance and a decision may come this week.
Second, the Kern County Auditor-Controller's office is withholding approximately $740,000 in property tax money during this fiscal year -- and plans to hold onto a similar amount during the next three fiscal years.
And third, Kern County is holding back approximately $211,000 in fire funds. The city's lawsuiit against Kern County has been moved to Kings County and has no further hearings set.
These cases also will cost the city an additional $250,000 in litigation expenses from the City Attorney's office, according to Administrative Analyst Chris Huot.