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In this file photo, the Kern County Fire Department responds to a vacant house fire in Taft.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors took a series of steps Tuesday to address a looming budget crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

One of those steps included passing a $3 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2020-21, but the most prominent may have been the reduction of firefighter overtime benefits that the County Administrative Office said exceeds federal labor standards.

The reduction came as part of a contract supervisors voted to impose on the local firefighters’ union after impasse negotiations between the two parties failed. County officials said the move was necessary to help eliminate a structural deficit within the Fire Fund that’s grown over the years to $9 million.

The issue has been a sore spot for many years, with the county paying overtime for sick leave and vacation, beyond standards set by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under the new deal, firefighters would only receive overtime if they worked beyond a 40-hour workweek.

Firefighters point out they haven’t received an increase in base pay that was not offset by a reduction in benefits since 2008, according to the union. Howard Lieberman, general counsel for the union, wrote in a letter the overtime cuts would reduce take-home pay and compensation to firefighters by 8.5 percent.

“The only way (firefighters) can try to tread water and maintain a 2008 standard of living is to work more and more each year,” he wrote in the letter, according to Kathleen Krause, who read it into the record during the meeting. He later added, “KCFFU members are essential safety professionals who continue to come to work and save lives on a daily basis while other county employees shelter in place in their homes or telecommute.”

County staff didn’t deny firefighters were underpaid, but claimed the reduction was a matter of necessity.

“We don’t dissent to the idea that our employees are underpaid. Our firefighters are underpaid when you consider our comparable counties,” said Chief Human Resources Officer Devin Brown.

Supervisors discussed the issue for around two hours before coming to a decision. Supervisor Leticia Perez called it the least favorite position she’d ever had to take while serving on the board.

“It feels like an impossible and truly miserable scenario where, because of the politics and because of the remarkable challenges associated with leadership, that we have not been able to make any progress on,” she said, referring to the negotiation process that’s dragged on for years.

At one point she tried to defer the vote to the 2 p.m. portion of the meeting so the supervisors could discuss the issue in closed session, but Supervisor Mick Gleason, who made the motion, refused to withdraw it from consideration.

“I know how hard this is,” he said. “But it is the way it is. I believe the fiscal cliff we’re heading for is real. I believe we need to be fair to all of our employees, not just the firefighters. I believe that we have a strategy in place… to create a different, but sustainable fire department that’s going to satisfy the taxpayers’ need and satisfy the public safety requirements that our firefighters are so vitally interested in.”

Supervisor Mike Maggard seconded Gleason’s motion, with Perez voting in favor. Supervisor David Couch abstained, while Supervisor Zack Scrivner voted against.

In addition to the cuts in overtime, supervisors also shifted more property taxes to the Fire Fund to increase revenue to the department.

Supervisors also passed a preliminary $3 billion budget, which cut the budgets for many county departments by 7.5 percent. The preliminary budget serves as a placeholder until budget hearings can be held and the final budget passed in August.

As the county attempts to grapple with a precipitous drop in the value of oil properties and consumer spending, Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop warned the fiscal situation could become worse before it gets better, with a more severe economic problem appearing in FY 2021-22.

“We hope that our projections are wrong,” he said. “We hope that we are better off than we are projecting obviously. We don’t want to be in this position, but we find ourselves in this position and it’s not an easy position to be in.”

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

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