By their own admission, city leaders say McFarland is more of a town rather than a city, and it's a long way from being your typical suburb.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it has a poverty rate of 37 percent, meaning this city/town of more than 15,000 residents in the northern part of Kern County isn't exactly a booming metropolis. The Great Recession of 2008 hit communities like this one pretty hard as sales tax revenue dropped and property values declined leaving the city financially strapped.
In fact, McFarland rates second to last of all cities in Kern County collecting sales tax revenue. Last year, the city took in just $387,632. Only Maricopa fared lower.
City leaders stepped in and made budget cuts reducing essential services such as public safety. Additionally, grants that were awarded to the city and used for police officers, city staff, community parks and streets will soon expire, and the city still has the obligation to continue paying the officers and city staff hired through those grants.
Median housing costs in McFarland is around $137,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Property taxes last year brought in just $375,880 to city coffers.
So McFarland is at a crossroads.
It needs money and fast. Earlier this month, the city council voted to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to approve a utility users tax. The proposed 5 percent increase would generate around $490,000 a year said McFarland City Manager John Wooner. Utilities such as electricity, gas, water, sewer, telephone including cell phones and long distance services, sanitation and cable television would all be subject to the 5 percent increase.
The money generated would be used for public safety, streets and park maintenance. It would be in place for 10 years with a citizen oversight board to monitor spending. Residents 65 and older would be exempt.
"I don't want to cut police services, I don't want to cut public works services," Wooner said. "So we have to find a way to generate money."
Driving much of the debate over a utility users tax is the city's ongoing battle with the Kern County Fire Department over the costs of KCFD providing fire protection to this impoverished city.
McFarland and KCFD see things entirely differently. The two have been battling over costs and who should pay what amount. KCFD claimed McFarland owed $411,000 for fire protection.
Last year the two sides came to an agreement that had McFarland paying $50,000 out of its general fund for fiscal year 2017-18. This fiscal year it doubled to $100,000. Additionally, KCFD gets $300,000 from the Kern County Fire Fund. And the two sides will head back to the negotiating table to figure out what amount McFarland will pay next year until the $411,000 bill is paid in full. Wooner cites budget woes at KCFD resulting in McFarland having to pay higher rates each year.
"They have an overall budget issue not caused by McFarland," Wooner said. "Why should we be responsible for everything they've done wrong?"
McFarland isn't alone in getting hit with rising costs for fire protection. Other cities that contract with KCFD also are seeing steady increases. Delano, for example, is paying 12.5 percent more this year than it did just four years ago. Arvin has seen a 21 percent increase in the same time period. How long can these small communities sustain this is anybody's guess.
If McFarland can't pay what KCFD is asking, the next option might be is to reduce the level of fire protection services. Even if the utility user tax is approved, it still won't be enough to pay KCFD, Wooner said.
"It's not that we don't want to pay," said Wooner. "We just don't have the money."
Perhaps, a GoFundMe account?