Kern County government hasn’t had a lot of joy-filled years since the Great Recession hit, but 2016 was one of the worst.
It's our top local government story of the year.
Since 2008, the county has struggled to recover its fiscal mojo and make progress toward big goals.
In the past 12 months in particular, the county has been dragged backward by the second year of dramatic declines in tax revenues from the struggling oil and gas industry.
In 2016 the county faced a $71 million combined hole in its frontline operating fund and the dedicated tax fund that feeds the Kern County Fire Department.
To make it through without dramatic cuts to core county services, including fire protection and law enforcement, the Kern County Board of Supervisors chose to spread the cuts out over four years.
It's hoped that will give officials time to streamline agencies and protect critical services from the worst of the financial storm.
The wisdom of that plan will be tested in 2017 as a second round of operational cuts hits county departments and top public safety leaders lobby to protect their operations from further blows.
A bright moment amid Kern County’s dim year was the celebration of its 150th anniversary.
Supervisors held a special meeting in the tiny mountain community of Havilah south of Lake Isabella — the mining town that served as the first county seat — on April 19.
There were jokes, stories, pageantry and a commitment by supervisors to keep the pioneering spirit of county founders alive as Kern faces a challenging future.
One of the plans for moving forward, at least for a coalition of Kern County Library supporters, was to pass a one-eighth cent sales tax increase to benefit the system.
That plan failed.
Supervisors put the measure, which would have raised an estimated $15 million for libraries, on the June ballot. The measure needed 66 percent of the yes vote plus one vote to pass. It got 52 percent.
Budget cuts in the 2016-17 fiscal year could force the closure of some county library branches, said Library Director Nancy Kerr.
Then there was the Kern County Parks and Recreation Department, which disappeared — at least as a separate entity — in 2016.
The public will still be able to enjoy parks and recreation programs.
But the department was broken into pieces, jobs were eliminated and the parks and recreation functions and staff were moved into the General Services section of the County Administrative Office.
Speaking of the CAO, Kern County bid farewell to current County Administrative Officer John Nilon in 2016.
Nilon, who oversaw the expansion of the CAO’s power, will retire in early January, making way for newly appointed County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop, a Bakersfield native who has been working in the top levels of Los Angeles County government.
Supervisors did accomplish some big goals in 2016, the largest of which was transferring operation of Kern Medical Center from the county to a newly created Kern County Hospital Authority.
The new government agency will run the county hospital as it continues efforts to move past its troubled financial history.
Over at the City of Bakersfield, we learned in 2016 that a “lifestyle center” is coming to one of the most prominent middle-of-the-city vacant properties in Bakersfield.
The folks behind what’s been known as the Bakersfield Commons project since 2010 revamped their plans for the area of Coffee and Brimhall roads after original ones for retail, office space and a baseball stadium failed to come together.
In November, the Bakersfield City Council green-lighted land-use changes and redone environmental work for what’s to include a mix of retail, office space, housing, a boutique hotel and a hospital.
Developers said they made the changes in large part because economic studies showed that section of the city’s northwest no longer needed the sort of large, “big-box” retail proposed during the early part of the Great Recession.
The entire 258-acre project is expected to be built in three phases ending in 2035. The first phase will include retail, office and multi-family residential developments.
The battle over city and Caltrans plans to widen 24th Street downtown continued to rage in 2016, resulting in an injunction being lifted at the trial court level and then another being temporarily imposed by an appellate court.
The fight is expected to continue well into 2017.
The City of Bakersfield and Caltrans want to add an auxiliary lane to northbound Highway 99, expand the intersection of Oak and 24th streets, widen 24th between Olive and D streets and widen 23rd and 24th streets between D and M streets.
The group Citizens Against the 24th Street Widening Project has been fighting the project in court for two years. It has challenged the adequacy of the environmental work done on something that would, in their words, create a highway that divides and destroys part of a historic neighborhood. They believe other alternatives should have been studied more.
The latest turn to the story came in late November when the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno issued a temporary stay on any project work that would alter the environment. The city had planned to begin demolishing houses, but for now cannot.
How to regulate the sale of medical marijuana continued to challenge the city and county in 2016 and won’t let up for years to come, in all likelihood.
Things got even more complicated for local governments on Nov. 8 when California voters legalized recreational marijuana.
The biggest development in the city came toward the end of the year when a citizens group secured enough signatures to get a measure on the 2018 ballot that if passed would replace Bakersfield's medical marijuana dispensary ban with regulations based on the state’s 2015 Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act.
City officials said they will start discussing early in the new year the separate matter of how to proceed with regulating the sale of recreational marijuana. They have time — the state licensing of dispensaries won’t take effect until 2018 at the earliest, a city attorney has said.
In mid-November, the Kern County Board of Supervisors launched an environmental investigation into the impact of medical and recreational marijuana on unincorporated areas. The effort will likely become a venue for the county to discuss how to regulate both forms of the drug.
Demolitions to make way for the Centennial Corridor project linking Highway 58 to the Westside Parkway got underway, including of that area's Little Red Schoolhouse and the Wild West Shopping Center.
Approximately 125 of the 225 structures slated for demolition have been demolished; it was expected that by Dec. 14, the total under contract for demolition would be in the area of 200, City Manager Alan Tandy said in early December.
Bakersfield has purchased 189 of 192 single-family residences; all nine multi-family properties; and 15 of 18 commercial or industrial properties it needs to build the freeway, he said.
Centennial has been the subject of two lawsuits: one challenging its environmental report, the other challenging Bakersfield's plans to repay the estimated $200 million it plans to borrow to build the project.
There's no court date set for the first matter to be heard, although the city expects it to happen sometime in mid- to late 2017 before a Kern County Superior Court judge.
In the second matter, the city prevailed in the trial court and the decision was affirmed at the appellate level with one exception.
Late in the year, the city announced it had received authorization to use federal funds for the construction of the Kern River Bridges Phase of the freeway connection. City officials said they anticipate advertising it for construction bids early next year.