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JON STUEBBE: It's past time to annex those county islands

I was recently at a meeting where the subject of the 2020 Census came up. Its results are not yet known for a variety of reasons. In the course of the discussion we guessed at the population of Bakersfield. How big are we? The answer to that depends on what you mean by “we.”

If you look at one of those old-fashioned paper maps, you have an advantage you will never get from your phone’s “Maps” application. The paper maps show you city and county division lines. If you can still find one in your home, you might want to take a look. What you will find may surprise you.

When we think of Bakersfield, we think of the houses and shopping centers where the people are. We can pretty much tell where the housing tracts stop and the undeveloped fields and farms start at the edges. To most of us, that is the city of Bakersfield. Your paper map will tell you otherwise.

Huge portions of what we assume is included are actually not in the city at all. It is county of Kern only. Most of the northeast and eastern portion of the area is not in the city. There are large islands of county land west of Wible Road and south of Stockdale Highway. Old Stockdale is another island fully surrounded by city neighborhoods.

I understand that some people feel strongly about wanting to be in the county only. I never understand why. The taxes are the same. Properties are still subject to building codes, etc. The ability to keep farm animals or horses isn’t really different or is grandfathered in. City voters also get to vote for county supervisors. I sincerely hope it isn’t because somebody wants to stay on a septic tank system rather than hooking up to a sewer. Almost none of the county islands still do that.

But this is costing us money. Law enforcement and fire protection is inefficient when it has to serve islands of county in the middle of the city. The California Highway Patrol does traffic enforcement in the county islands and it responds to auto accidents. The city and county have had to enter into cooperative support agreements to provide emergency backup, which can be a source of conflict and dispute over costs.

Trying to figure out our population kind of sorts out like this. If you are talking about the city of Bakersfield proper, it is something over 400,000. If you look at the actual population of the developed portion of what we imagine is Bakersfield, it is something around 700,000. The federal government uses uniform metropolitan districts as a basis for distributing funds, allocating highway repair funds and welfare money. Once again that concept is not quite the same as just the developed area of the city and county because it includes some other areas that might depend on the influence of the populated area.

If this all seems illogical to you, I agree. There are historical reasons some areas have not become part of the city itself. There are emotional reasons for the same thing. Some people have a romantic idea about being in the county versus the city, even though they are surrounded by it. There are misunderstandings about bad results of being in the city which are not true but which are strongly believed.

Such areas should be incorporated into the city limits. Fire and police services would be more efficient. Sewer treatment systems would make more sense and be simpler to administer. The Highway Patrol could go do something else.

Under present state law, this change can’t be forced and requires the vote of the citizens in the area. But if after a reasonable time or a negative vote it doesn’t happen, those areas should bear the full cost of the inefficiency of remaining aloof by paying an “inefficiency property tax” to spare the rest of us from bearing the burden. User taxes have long been a popular way to pay for some government activity. This seems like a cost those areas should bear.

Here’s my modest proposal — that the county islands in the city and the large areas of the area not in the city either incorporate or pay the full cost of the inefficiencies caused by their refusal.

Jon Stuebbe is retired after 20 years as a Kern County Superior Court judge. He was previously dean of California Pacific School of Law. The views expressed here are his own.