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ANNA SMITH: Self-help strategies are crucial to economic development

Columnist Anna Smith

Columnist Anna Smith

I recently visited my sister who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. As my husband and I entered the downtown area, we were enchanted by the small boutiques, cafes and coffee shops. Exploring one afternoon, we spotted parking in an easy-to-access lot and enjoyed a delicious lunch of salad wraps at a healthy fast food restaurant with a cool urban forest vibe.

After lunch, we found the historic sites well-marked and praised the well-maintained brick sidewalks and trees; the crosswalks were striped with bright paint, cars slowed around us, and it was surprisingly easy to get around with a baby in tow.

Cities we all love to visit do much more than offer basic services. They provide outstanding services. They go above and beyond. They offer safe streets with a stable police presence, walkable urban clusters with beautiful landscaping and lush parks.

And businesses that we all love to visit want to be in these areas as well. These cities exist as a place current residents love to call home and are constantly attracting new residents to live or visit.

To be successful in our current economy, we should work to be a community where skilled, innovative and entrepreneurial workers want to live. While the nature of what talented workers want in a community may change, it always includes quality of life factors: the reality and perception of personal safety, a variety of amenities, culture and attractions, quality education and medical care, and a healthy natural environment. Bakersfield should recognize and affirm quality of life as an economic development factor, continuously monitor changing local and national definitions of quality of life, and strive to improve the quality of life for residents here.

And all of this can’t be done unless basic services are comfortably paid for. Our city budgets conservatively and has been lean for some time, doing more with less and reducing costs wherever possible. Over time, you may have noticed less police on the street, more crime in your neighborhoods, longer police and fire response times, deferred park maintenance, delayed code enforcement and a whole host of other cost-cutting measures.

Even though the City’s sales tax revenue for 2017 was reported just last week as up to 8.3 percent (an increase from low 2016 numbers), the city manager’s office provided the City Council with a fiscal outlook that argues it’s getting harder to pay for basic services under their allotted budget.

And I believe them. Without basic services covered, there are no funds left to pay for any extras. Without an increase in funding, city services will continue to deteriorate, and we’ll have no chance of competing with other cities that already have revenue enhancement strategies in place.

At this Wednesday’s Council meeting, our city manager’s office will report back on the Council’s request to gauge public opinion on the possibility of a sales tax increase. The City Council will discuss the issue further at the meeting.

And it makes sense why the City and Council are looking at a sales tax increase as a solution to our fiscal problems. Revenue from sales tax is an important component of municipal finance in California. All across the state, cities have seen a gap in revenue for a few reasons — property taxes were capped in 1978 with Proposition 13, the rising cost of doing business drains municipal resources and, more recently, online retail sales have pulled money out of local communities.

We can disagree about some of the details here, but it’s obvious that municipal finance is changing. Our policies and practices have to change too. Nobody is going to save our city’s finances if we don’t come up with our own solution.

Today, the primary source of revenue for cities is sales tax. In Bakersfield, ours has remained at the base rate set by the state, the lowest possible. We don’t have any kind of added self-help to bridge the gap in funding for basic services like fire, police, street and park maintenance, sewer, water and trash. Over 93 percent of residents in California live in a city with a sales tax higher than the base rate. Other Valley towns that passed an add-on sales tax include: Visalia, Stockton, Sacramento, Tulare, Arvin, Wasco, Delano, Ridgecrest and Merced. All of the 20 most populous cities in California — other than Bakersfield — have a sales tax higher than the base state rate of 7.25 percent (of which only 50 cents is kept locally).

We need to prioritize our quality of life, ensure the future viability of our city through economic development and come up with a way to increase funding for municipal services. And I support efforts to consider any reasonable proposal that tackles these issues.

After talking with folks who understand the problems well, even under a modest proposal to increase sales revenue, there would be money left after covering basic services to fund more aggressive economic development measures like those that make a small Pennsylvania downtown safer, cleaner and more friendly to businesses and visitors. Every other city of our size in California has a similar policy in place, so it makes sense that we seriously consider this as a way to compete.

Bakersfield is well known for its rugged individualism. It's time we embrace a better vision for our future and confront our problems head-on. The solution to our city’s financial woes won't be found in Sacramento or D.C. To get the help we need, we must help ourselves.

Local efforts to recruit and retain: On a related note, the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce is launching a new effort to research better ways to get the best workforce to move and stay in our region. Companies in town are concerned about their ability to attract, recruit and retain skilled employees. The Chamber is launching their 2018 survey to get perspective on the local economy and its challenges. For 2018, the Chamber is looking for ways to combat the “brain drain” and improve prospects for employers that are recruiting candidates from out of town.

A burger joint with so much more than burgers: I’m happy to report that the old Hidden Cafe space is now buzzing again. Narducci’s Burgers and Italian Ice recently opened in the space at O and 21st streets, and I visited for lunch. I was impressed with the amount of non-burger items on the menu (which is great for someone who steers clear of red meat). I had the pecan crusted chicken salad, and it was delicious.

Hidden menu items at Luigi’s: Word on the street is that Baker's Outpost is serving up fresh pizzas and sourdough loaves at the Luigi’s deli on select days of the week. Check out their account on Instagram (@bakersoutpost) to find out when they’ll be stocked.

BYP Summit: The Bakersfield Young Professionals group is hosting its annual summit with TEDtalk-like panel discussions about local entrepreneurship and technology on Thursday, April 12, from 12 noon to 4 p.m. at Elements Venue, 3401 Chester Ave. Check out their Facebook and Instagram accounts for more information: @bakersfieldyoungprofessionals

A cocktail party to support the arts: The Bakersfield Museum of Art is hosting its annual ArtMix event on Thursday, March 22, at 5:30 p.m. Enjoy signature cocktails and food from Bakersfield’s best eateries. They also host an off-the-wall art sale. (Rumor has it my husband may be pouring champagne for the benefactor reception.) See you there?

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about Bakersfield. She can be reached at The opinions expressed are her own.

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