A key ally of Measure N has raised concerns over the city of Bakersfield’s spending, questioning the continued support of the measure if the city’s pattern continues.
In a letter written to the Bakersfield City Council, Kevin Burton, board chairman of the Kern County Taxpayers Association, said the city hasn't lived up to promises it made before the 1 percent sales tax increase was passed by voters.
KernTax was an early advocate for Measure N, and can be credited with helping the measure pass. The loss of the organization’s support would be a blow to the city’s spending priorities that have resulted from the measure.
“For two years, we have watched the city thumb its nose at the agreement it approved with KernTax,” Burton wrote, referring to stipulations the organization says the city agreed to in order to win its support. “While our city continues to suffer, staff recommended hiring more than 200 new city employees and building two super-regional parks. In contrast, local neighborhood parks continue to be neglected, and other city needs go unmet.”
The Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, another ally that provided legitimacy and significant support for the measure, has also called on the city to make changes to how projects are funded through the tax increase. While stopping short of the criticisms KernTax levied at the city, President and CEO Nick Ortiz said the city needs to develop a plan for how funds raised by the tax increase will be spent.
“We are really looking at this from a more long term and strategic standpoint,” Ortiz said. “If we spend this now, how is this moving the needle down the road?”
He added later that the Chamber wanted a broader discussion about funding prioritization and strategy.
Over the last two years, the city has rapidly brought on employees in an attempt to provide higher-quality services to constituents and return the city to its status before the Great Recession. For the next fiscal year, the city plans to hire an additional 91 employees out of the $69.6 million expected from Measure N.
But instead of spending money hiring more city employees, which will continue being an expense indefinitely, KernTax wants to push the city into funding the litany of maintenance projects that have been deferred for years and other long-term improvement goals.
“If it goes a third year like we’ve had the last two, there will be a very serious discussion about withdrawing support. We’ve got a year to fix this,” KernTax Executive Director Michael Turnipseed said. “Because we have tens of millions of dollars in needs in this community and we don’t need to hire more people. We need to fix our community.”
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, some councilmembers seemed inclined to listen to the concerns. While defending next fiscal year’s budget, Councilman Bruce Freeman said the council needed to be on the lookout for out-of-control spending in the future.
“This particular budget I am supporting 95 percent of it, but I want to be real careful as we move into the next year and the next,” he said. “We are aware of what’s going on will and try to watch it. The bigger concerns are the next years. We’ll get staffed up with our 100 officers, but (need to be sure) that every year we don’t add 91 people. We will blow up if we do that.”
He brought up that the city still has fewer staff per capita than other cities throughout California, adding the new staff additions were mostly necessary.
Nevertheless, he said he appreciated concerns brought up by the two organizations.
“I like the fact that they are putting pressure on,” he said. “I think it’s good that they want to make sure that everybody is watching.”