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Short-staffed, code compliance does its best to keep Kern County presentable

Landlord Frank St. Clair has watched as a property across the street from one of his rentals in southeast metro Bakersfield has gone from bad to worse over the last few months.

Previously derelict, the home has been apparently taken over by vagrants. Junk and debris have piled up on the front lawn. He worries the price of his own property is being affected by the worsening condition of the lot across the street. Complaints to Kern County’s Code Compliance have been unheeded for months.

“Usually these things would get cleared up… in less than 90 days. And this one, it’s actually gotten worse over the last six months,” he said. “It used to be you could figure it would get resolved in two to three months. Now it couldn’t be more opposite.”

For homeowners across Kern County, the prospect of slower response times from the county’s code compliance division may be troubling. A part of the Public Works Department, it’s officers are charged with clearing property violations that impact public health and safety. These violations can range from abandoned vehicles in front yards to a business being run out of a residence, and they can significantly impact the overall look of a neighborhood.

However, like many county departments, code compliance has struggled to maintain adequate staffing levels. At the moment, only four officers are assigned to cover all of Kern County. Program Manager Alfredo Rojas said the department would ideally employ seven officers.

While they are in the process of hiring one or two, past experience has taught the department that some new hires only last a short time before being tempted to other cities and counties that offer higher pay.

“There’s a considerable amount of frustration of people that are trying to respond to calls for assistance or help, and they just don’t have enough time to do it,” said Public Works Director Craig Pope. “That’s just frustrating. We keep plugging away the best we can, but we’re not doing it justice.”

Many other departments across Kern County government are dealing with staffing issues. A financial shortfall initiated by a plunge in oil prices in 2016 caused department budgets to shrink as the cost of doing business grew. Due to their size, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department have been notable examples of county employees tasked with doing more work with less resources.

In the tight-knit code compliance division, when one officer quits, the workload can be difficult to pick up for the remaining workers. The problem is compounded because each officer is responsible for a section of the county, meaning low staffing can disproportionately impact one area of Kern over the others.

“Like in any workplace, if you have a situation where the workload is getting too heavy, you try to stay on top of how officers are responding to those areas,” Rojas said. “One will carry the load for a little bit and then pass on to the next guy.”

Despite the challenges, Rojas pointed out that code compliance has been able to handle cases at roughly the same percentage over the past ten years, which he credited to improved innovation and clerical support from throughout the county.

The division has already handled around $700,000 in abatements since the beginning of the fiscal year, in July.

Widespread complaints have not been prevalent.

Jeff Flores, chief of staff for Supervisor Mike Maggard, said his office has not received any complaints about slow response.

“On the whole, they are very responsive considering the amount of cases and size of the county we have,” he wrote in a text to The Californian. “More officers would help in the grand scheme of things.”

Still, he added, “Code is one of our best departments.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.