Public safety and staying financially solvent appear to be two of the biggest challenges facing the good people of Arvin, as elected representatives on the city council and the police department struggle to come up with a solution. Let's start with public safety.
The stats are not good at all.
Since 2014 there have been 14 homicides in this community just 35 minutes southeast of Bakersfield. The most recent one happened on April 15 with the shooting death of 22-year-old Fabian Zuñiga. While Arvin usually averages two to three homicides a year, it jumped to six in 2017. And the cops are having a hard time arresting and bringing those responsible to trial.
The victims were mostly Hispanic young men, mainly in their 20s; the oldest were 32 and 34 years old. Most had been shot and one was stabbed to death.
Among the dead:
— Ismael Gutierrez Jr, 21. He and a 19-year-old woman were shot on December 17, 2017 around 3 a.m. in the area of of Krauter Street and Walnut Drive. Just hours earlier he celebrated his 21st birthday with family. The woman survived.
— Jose Joel "JJ" Salazar, 22. His mother said he left home early the morning of January 6, 2017 to meet some friends and she never heard from him again. Police found his body in his truck two days later.
— Marcus Deon DeLouth, 19. On December 18, 2016 police responded to a check the welfare call around 2:30 a.m. at the Kern Housing Authority on Meyer Street. That's where they found DeLouth's body on a sidewalk. Police said he was shot multiple times. DeLouth graduated from Golden Valley High School where he played football.
— Abraham Martinez, 22. Shot to death just before 6 p.m. on February 10, 2018 in an alley near South Comanche Road and Sycamore Drive. Police haven't released a suspect description.
A total of three suspects, Durham Muhammad, Juan Carlos Rendon and Juan Pablo Villareal are awaiting trial in three separate homicide cases. The rest of the cases remain unsolved.
Upset over the situation and what they said was a lack of police progress on finding and arresting those responsible for their loved ones murder, a diverse group of family members are trying to get answers from the Arvin City Council, the police department and appealing for the public's help.
"We want justice! We want arrests and we want answers!" said a determined Bea Cruz, aunt of Ismael Gutierrez. Cruz said her nephew had plans on working in law enforcement and was lined up to take a state test for correctional officer. "We don't want any other families or parents to suffer what we've been enduring."
To be fair, 2017 was a banner year for homicides with a record 101 in all of Kern County.
Making things worse is the city can only afford to fund a total of 18 positions for its entire police force. That includes the police chief, one lieutenant, four sergeants, and two investigators. That leaves 10 officers to patrol a city of 20,000 people 24 hours a day,seven days a week.
And there's one vacant position, leaving nine officers on the street. But there's another daunting challenge in solving the homicide cases.
"We just can't get people to talk in this community," said Police Chief Jerry Breckinridge. "There are people who have witnessed these homicides, but they will not come forward to tell us what happened."
That point is not lost on the family members who have lost loved ones to violence.
"I think a lot of it is that people are afraid to come forward because they live here," said Cruz.
The police recently conducted a gang sweep resulting in seven arrests, but Breckinridge admits those only go so far. Community public safety forums have not yet yielded the response desired. But Breckenridge said he's got other things in mind.
"There are strategies that I can't reveal," he said.
But there is some good news. Just last week, police caught a break and arrested 24-year-old Francisco Baños in connection with the murder of 22-year-old Fabian Zuñiga. With Help from the Kern County Sheriff's Gang Suppression Unit, Baños was apprehended at a hotel in Castaic.
The other major issue in Arvin is the city is struggling to dig itself out of a self-made $1.8 million budget deficit. City council members were caught off guard last year when they learned the city was suddenly facing the budget hole for the current fiscal year.
Simply put, city staff overestimated revenues by about 20 percent and the city council signed off on it. Speculation that someone swiped the money began to circulate.
"There was a misconception that money may have gone missing or pocketed," said Mayor Jose Gurrola. "That is incorrect."
Steps taken since November have helped fill the gap and there's even some good news. General sales tax revenues are up by 10 percent and revenues from the city's special Measure L 1-percent tax are up by 20 percent.
Another good sign is Vehicle License Fees revenue are also better than expected. The city also has a new finance director, Jeff Jones, who is cleaning up the mess he inherited. Jones suspects Arvin is not getting its fair share of sales tax revenue from the state and/or the county so he's hired an auditing firm called Muni Services to look into the matter.
The city is crunching the numbers for the new 2018-19 fiscal year and Jones is cautiously optimistic though, he can't say right now there won't be another deficit.
I've been asking city leaders how to avoid this embarrassing situation from occurring a second time.
"We need to make sure that the numbers that we're getting from the financial director is correct," said Gurrola.
Jones had a different take.
"You just need to get some people that understand city and government finances and how accounting works," he said. "It's pretty basic."