Kern County administrators believe they are well on their way to digging the county out of the hole it found itself in about three years ago, when crashing oil prices resulted in a $44.5 million deficit in the county’s general fund.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors accepted a preliminary $2.6 billion budget for the Fiscal Year 2018-19. The budget will act as the official spending document for all county departments for the first two months of the fiscal year until the supervisors approve the final budget in August.
Most departments, excluding public safety and fire, were asked to institute a 2.5 percent reduction in their spending. This comes after a 3.5 percent spending reduction last fiscal year and a 5 percent spending reduction the year before.
After two years of reduced spending – following the county’s deficit mitigation plan – the county has decreased the deficit to $18.8 million, alleviating nearly 58 percent.
“We’re right on target,” said Assistant County Administrative Officer Nancy Lawson. “Everything so far is in a positive swing. At this point (the mitigation plan) has been very successful.”
The vast majority of the spending cuts have come from departments slimming their workforce by not rehiring employees who either step down or are let go for reasons unrelated to the deficit.
“What we’re doing is we’re stopping the bleeding,” said County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop.
Departments have learned to do more with less. With two years to go in the deficit reduction strategy and another spending reduction in the bull pen for the next fiscal year, county departments will need to get used to less money for services for at least the next two years.
“It’s been extremely difficult,” said District Attorney Lisa Green. “We’ve added responsibilities to our support staff personnel that they’ve handled. It’s just increased everyone’s workload.”
The County Administrative Office, which presents the budget to the board, maintains that no “service level” cuts have been necessary to reduce the deficit, essentially meaning that everyday citizens should notice no difference in the services they receive from the county.
No employees have been laid off as a result of the deficit.
With the county halfway through the deficit reduction process, the light at the end of the tunnel is showing.
Alsop said his office is starting to look to the future.
“I think there’s some work we need to do going forward," he said. “We’re trying to position ourselves so we can invest in our workforce."
Both the Sheriff’s and Fire departments were exempt from the 2.5 percent reduction.
“Just to maintain safety levels, we had to keep them status quo,” Alsop said.
Some cause for concern, he added in his budget report, was the rising costs of public safety and increasing pension costs.
Some in county residents felt as if the county’s spending priorities were out of whack.
Around 20 activists from various groups mostly situated in western Kern communities spoke at the meeting, asking the supervisors for more resources.
They wanted money for street lights, flood control and road fixes. They said their communities did not receive a proportionate share of the funds delegated by the supervisors.
“We want not to increase money, but to reallocate the money so that it is more equitably spread out,” said Cesar Aguirre with the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “And the focus be more on the people that need (the money) rather than the people that expect it because they have been receiving it.”
Supervisor David Couch, whose District 4 includes communities with representatives present at the meeting, said the county would come up with a plan to address many of the concerns and present it to the community stakeholders.
“Before we go out and spend a lot of money on things, we need a plan,” he said.
Two public meetings will be held in July to receive public comments before the board adopts the final plan in late August.
The first public meeting will occur at 6 p.m. July 23, with the second meeting occurring July 24.
Reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.