Kern County supervisors on Tuesday rejected public safety department appeals for more money from the county budget and through a sales tax measure despite warnings services will suffer.
The work of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department, Probation Department and District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices remains the county’s highest priority, supervisors said. They have sheltered those departments from cuts for years.
But the county is in a four-year fiscal crisis that will only get worse in coming years, they said, and public safety departments must take their share of cuts as well.
After closing the books on the county’s 2015-16 fiscal year, staff said the county’s general fund has a $44.5 million shortfall and the fire fund that supports the Fire Department has a $17.5 million shortfall.
Supervisor Zack Scrivner said delaying cuts to public safety departments now would only make next year’s cuts worse.
“I think our commitment to public safety has been demonstrated,” Scrivner said. “Everyone has their own priorities. What this board is challenged with is balancing those priorities.”
District Attorney Lisa Green and Sheriff Donny Youngblood laid out the serious impacts supervisors’ decisions will have on their departments.
Youngblood said he is struggling to keep his deputy positions filled as officers leave to take jobs at other agencies and senior deputies retire. Now he will be unable to fill positions.
“Places like Frazier Park and the Kern River Valley may not have 24-hour coverage” in the near future because he won’t have staff to fill them, he said.
His staff will start the cuts “the minute we come out of this room,” Youngblood said.
Green said cuts to her department mean some misdemeanor crimes will simply go unprosecuted. There’s a $1.1 million difference between Green’s preferred budget and the one proposed by the County Administrative Office.
“We cannot do what we have to do without the DAs we have in the department. There is no fat in the DA’s office,” she said. “$1.1 million is our bottom line so we can be in what is essentially a status quo budget.”
Giving Green the money would have forced all other county departments to take a 1 percent cut, according to County Administrative Officer John Nilon’s Tuesday report to the board.
And covering all public safety cuts with funding from other county departments would have forced the closure of seven libraries, reductions in Department of Human Services child welfare work and the euthanization of more than 3,000 additional animals each year by Kern County Animal Services, reports from those departments stated.
Supervisors didn’t give Green the extra money.
For once, however, the Kern County Fire Department’s budget was not hotly debated.
Kern County Employee Relations Officer Devin Brown said the county has reached a tentative agreement with the Kern County Fire Fighters union that would balance the Fire Department spending plan.
The union agreed to a status quo budget until September 2017, Brown said, and to allow fire prevention workers to become non-safety employees.
Cost savings from that move and other department efforts would close the current gap in funding.
It would not, Brown said, address concerns raised by the County Administrative Office about staffing levels in the Fire Department’s rural stations and overtime costs tied to that.
The county’s budget discussion isn’t over yet, however.
Now departments that haven’t balanced their budgets must work with Nilon’s office to close the gap before the county’s final budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year is finalized in late August.
Following the board’s decision to hold the line on public safety funding, Youngblood asked supervisors to put a one cent sales tax on the November ballot to fill the gaps blown in public safety budgets by the oil and gas downturn’s massive hit to property tax revenue.
Youngblood said it hurt to make the request.
“I’m the last person (who wants to be) standing up in front of this board asking for a one cent sales tax,” Youngblood said, but county citizens deserve the opportunity to bolster public safety budgets.
Nick Ortiz of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce joined other business groups in proposing a joint public safety/transportation sales tax be put on the ballot by supervisors.
The majority of supervisors rejected the idea.
If the public wants to gather signatures and put the measure on the ballot, that’s fine, they said, but they aren’t going to do it.
Supervisors Mike Maggard, Scrivner, Mick Gleason and David Couch said they believe the county hasn’t cut all possible fat out of its operations and until that happens, they can’t support a tax.
“What I’m hearing is, ‘Let’s just dump it on the taxpayer,’ Gleason said. “I’m not in favor of it.”
He said this current fiscal crisis is the perfect time to really streamline county operations.
“I think we’re in a unique position in Kern County to create systematic restructuring,” he said. Passing a tax measure would squander that opportunity, Gleason said.
Only Supervisor Leticia Perez supported the tax idea.
“I don’t believe there is a lot of fat to be cut from county departments,” she said.
As difficult as it is to ask taxpayers to stabilize county finances, Perez said, it’s the right thing to do.
And November’s ballot, with its heated presidential contest, is the only time in which the broad, diverse group of voters needed to pass the tax will likely cast ballots, she said.
November, Perez, “is the only shot we have.”