The Kern County Board of Supervisors have declared an end to the fiscal emergency that has been plaguing the county for the last four years.
In a unanimous vote, supervisors passed the $2.9 billion Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget, bringing to a close a period of austerity for county officials in which departments were forced to trim around 12 percent of their expenses.
The fiscal emergency began in 2015 after the price of oil dropped precipitously. As a result, property tax revenue sharply declined, leaving the county with a $44.5 million structural deficit.
For four years, the county chipped away at the deficit by allowing vacant positions to go unfilled and by backfilling the general fund with reserve money.
In the next fiscal year, the county estimates total assessed value for Kern County properties to return to levels not seen since the 2015 drop.
While the county applauded the fact that the budget cuts occurred without the need to resort to layoffs, the period has been marked by a number of employee unions spreading alarm over low wages and poor morale.
County administrators have attempted to counter some of the claims made by the unions, and they have offered increases in salaries and other benefits in some instances, but supervisors expressed worry over the workers who have had to go through years of belt-tightening.
“I am really concerned about the condition of our workforce; about their sense about hope about their future, and their sense that this body cares at all,” said Supervisor Leticia Perez.
At the Aug. 27 meeting, supervisors were careful to give credit to their employees who have gone through the years of cuts.
“We wouldn’t be up here celebrating the fact that we closed the fiscal deficit, found so many ways to streamline county government, if it wasn’t for all of our employees working so hard,” said Supervisor Zack Scrivner. “And in many cases doing more because of the fact that we closed this deficit largely through attrition.”
The total budget increased by around $39.3 million compared to the previous fiscal year, however, much of the increase can be attributed to the county receiving more state and federal funding, and the county does not control how those funds are spent.
The $872.8 million general fund, which is partially composed of money raised locally – of which the county controls a portion – decreased by $21.5 million compared to the prior fiscal year.
County officials warned that rising benefit costs were outpacing increases in tax revenue, and could stifle the county’s economic goals following the end of the fiscal crisis.
Over the last nine years, benefits costs have risen by around $190 million.
“We must continue to be disciplined in the business decisions we make,” said County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop. “We must continue to follow through with implementing measures to save money where we are able, and we must continue to ensure that all of our employees who will help us do this understand that such efforts are a necessity.”
The budget allocates $859.6 million to public safety, including an $11.1 million net cost increase primarily for the Sheriff’s Office.
A total of $2 million was set aside for homelessness mitigation and $2.8 million was designated for park improvements.