In an issue of The Californian last month, we learned that the City of Bakersfield is very likely to have held secret, illegal meetings to discuss raising our taxes (City Council's discussions of tax increase may violate state open-meetings laws.")
We heard a sorry presentation about how our city will have a $23 million general fund shortfall by 2022 and that we will have to pay an annual $71 million contribution to the retirement plan. Councilman Ken Weir said that the retirement boondoggle is not the city’s fault and we heard Councilman Bob Smith say “we don’t build highways through neighborhoods; we build neighborhoods around roadways.”
When Councilman Willie Rivera mentioned the logical question about “pausing” two major projects, City Manager Alan Tandy said that “pausing" capital improvements would be “fiscally irresponsible.” We heard nearly all council members state they were behind keeping crosswalks on 24th Street, yet voted to remove them despite over 400 people wanting them left. We heard that the city is currently going to spend around $3 million on the 24th Street project when designs, already costing $5 million, are not even finished.
What we did not hear was: the current deficit for the retirement program totals $419 million; about the loan the city wants to pay for the Centennial freeway which will add another $500 million to the city’s debt; the $14 million the city took from the general fund last year for these projects; about the $21 million they plan to take from the general fund next year for Centennial.
We did not hear about the many millions taken out of the budget, bit by bit, for the 24th Street and Centennial projects over the last few years. We did not hear about more than $3 million per year in taxes the city is costing Kern residents by bulldozing over 100 businesses and 200 residences. We did not hear that the city has voted to spend $36 million to relocate the utilities in the Centennial route.
Mr. Fidler stated 24th Street will cost $25 million (though he seemed not to really know — strange, he is director), but for “construction only.” What does that mean? How many other costs is he not telling us about?
And, most importantly, we did not hear that the TRIP funds are, essentially, gone. Any money spent on each of these remaining projects now is going to be city money, our money, a huge amount of money.
We heard lots of talk from the council about “community cohesion and connectivity.” Mr. Smith said “we don’t build roads through neighborhoods.” Council members quoted city policy about making sure this connectivity and cohesion must be followed. Yet they are splitting many neighborhoods through the middle to build the Centennial project, separating people from medical facilities, several schools and churches, parks, shopping and pedestrian traffic. To say nothing of the pollution of a freeway 50 feet from these places. Apparently, talk is cheap.
I would suggest fiscal irresponsibility is Mr. Weir’s contention that the city is not responsible for the retirement horror. The city is responsible for buying into what Weir said was impossible expectations to begin with. Irresponsibility is not making up the retirement deficit each year they fell behind and allowed it to become a monster. It is fiscal irresponsibility to keep putting money down rat holes of projects and then want to raise our taxes. It is irresponsible to keep leading the taxpayers into believing that there are large sums of money in the TRIP fund to pay for this stuff when the money is all gone.
This city council has been irresponsible for many years. Spending money piecemeal in the tens of millions of dollars on projects they can’t afford to complete, in not making up any deficiencies in the retirement program when they came up and they knew would never meet expectations, for splitting neighborhoods in half, despite their contention “we don’t build roadways through neighborhoods.”
And now they want to raise our taxes due to their irresponsibility. It is time to stop this craziness, cut their losses and pay for what we can afford and not punish us, the taxpayers, for their irresponsible behavior.
Robert Braley is retired and lives in Bakersfield.