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ROBERT PRICE: Bakersfield hates taxes but right now it loves 2018’s Measure N

As part of my campaign to point out things that actually went right in 2020, I call your attention to Measure N, the 1-cent sales tax increase that Bakersfield voters approved … in November 2018.

So, yeah, it doesn’t really count.

But it does.

Had Bakersfield voters, a notoriously tax-averse bunch, rejected Measure N, as any self-respecting bookie would have forecast, we’d be much worse off right now than we are.

And, yes, it could in fact be worse.

Passage of Measure N, aka the Bakersfield Public Safety and Vital Services Measure, has saved the city from making deep, serious cuts, a fate that has befallen a significant number of municipalities.

U.S. cities have seen a 21 percent drop in revenue since the pandemic began, Axios reports, while additional expenses — for PPE, remote-work technology and overtime pay — have increased 17 percent, further deepening the hole, according to a poll of 900 municipalities by the National League of Cities.

Just 7 percent of cities that received funding from the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund said the infusion "adequately addressed their revenue shortfalls and unforeseen expenses," according to the national organization. More than a third — 37 percent — said they've been forced to cut their workforces, using hiring freezes, wage freezes, layoffs, furloughs, cuts in work hours and early retirements.

Los Angeles has been among the hardest hit. COVID-19 has created a $675 million hole in the city’s revenue, and this month L.A.’s Budget and Finance Committee convened to mull a plan that includes 1,800 layoffs. “Catastrophic” is how Chairman Paul Krekorian characterized it in comments to news outlet LAist.

But Measure N, which raised the sales tax in the city from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent, will bail out Bakersfield to the tune of an estimated $58 million extra per year. It became effective in April 2019.

Talk about timing.

The city secured that voter-approved windfall by the skin of its teeth.

The sales tax increase was losing throughout election night 2018, and most of us went to bed assuming it had gone down, as most local tax increases — school bonds being among the relatively rare exceptions — have done.

But when all the votes had been counted nearly a week later, it was a narrow winner, 50.05 percent yes to 49.95 percent no. A similar measure put forth by the county of Kern went down in flames.

Don’t think city officials aren’t grateful.

“The hits just keep on coming for 2020, but we've been really fortunate,” said Vice Mayor Chris Parlier. “Of course we've taken a hit economically, but thankfully, with Measure N and smart planning, we're on the right track. And once the vaccine comes along, I think we'll be up and running pretty quick. ... We have taken a hit, but we're still on solid footing.”

Bakersfield City Manager Christian Clegg, who moved into the job literally days before the pandemic shut down the economy, knows how much worse it could have been.

“COVID has of course changed the game for all municipalities, but we're looking forward to 2021, having some ability to come out of that mode. ... We're fortunate in that we have a plan going forward and that we have some resources to develop tools to help businesses,” he said.

While other cities are pulling back hard on the economic reins, Bakersfield government services expand ever so gradually.

Some 29 new sworn police officers are scheduled to be hired with Measure N funds in fiscal 2020-21, part of the effort to hire 100 new officers over a three-year period. Imagine cuts at the Bakersfield Police Department instead of growth in a year where violent crime, including homicide, is almost off the chart and calls for improved de-escalation strategies and “soft policing” — which demand more badges, not fewer — continue.

Roughly $10 million has been allocated this year to addressing homelessness, including funding for the new Brundage Lane Homeless Navigation Center.

About $7.3 million in Measure N funding is going toward affordable housing projects.

Measure N is also funding a new Clean City Initiative — $1.5 million for ongoing cleanup and maintenance in public areas and $1.4 million for other citywide beautification projects.

Just this week, the Bakersfield City Council and Kern County Board of Supervisors passed measures intended to address illegal dumping and littering, and the Public Safety and Vital Services Measure — Measure N — will help make it possible on the city side of that undertaking.

“Frankly, this was a piece of Measure N that we campaigned on, that we would work on beautification, that we would work on enhancing the quality of life for our city,” Councilman Andrae Gonzales told The Californian’s Sam Morgen last week.

Without the 1 percent sales tax increase, Clegg told The Californian, the new cleanup efforts wouldn’t be possible.

Meanwhile, many other U.S. cities have been forced into painful decisions. As Steve Adler, mayor of Austin, Texas, recently told Axios, “Our real choices are really on who you help and how you help them. Those are the most difficult choices, because there is such great need."

Nobody likes to pay taxes and nobody likes to see them go up. But right now 50.05 percent of Bakersfield voters should be feeling pretty smart. And 100 percent should be feeling grateful.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here on Sundays; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at robertprice@kget.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.