Likely your mamma told you, “Money can’t buy happiness.” Probably she said that when you were asking her for money.
But did anyone tell Bakersfield city officials that doling out lots of money might make no one really happy, either?
That’s the “embarrassment of riches” predicament that city officials now have. They are grappling with the “happy,” but unexpected passage of Measure N, a sales tax measure that was on the November 2018 ballot.
“Special interests” in a coalition that helped very narrowly pass Measure N each now want a slice of the estimated $58 million that will be generated annually from raising the city’s sales tax from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent.
And those special interests are watching city officials’ spending proposals like hawks, nipping at their heels, howling and otherwise carrying on.
Now, that’s not a bad thing. We all should be closely watching government agencies as they spend every single dollar of the many we pay in taxes. But in the case of Measure N, which appeared to be failing big time during initial counting on Election night, but squeaked ahead in counting days later to win by only 97 votes, there are other reasons we should watch.
In a “trust us, we’re from the government” campaign to pass Measure N, which created a massive, unrestricted tax pool, proponents promised to establish a citizen oversight committee to watch spending and make recommendations.
And while local ballot tax measures in other communities generally have “sunset clauses” – meaning they expire within a time period and require voters to reaffirm their support for the tax to continue – Measure N does not expire. It goes on and on, unless voters get unhappy with the way money is being spent and pass another measure repealing the tax.
So, it’s good for groups and individual taxpayers to pay attention now and keep paying attention for years to come. Allowing this to become just another pot of cash administered by invisible bureaucrats is not in the spirit or intent of Measure N.
Right off the bat, understandable howls were heard loud and clear when the Bakersfield City Council used a bizarre voting procedure to select the nine-member oversight committee. The result was only one woman and mostly white men. It was hardly reflective of Bakersfield’s diverse community. An opening allowed the appointment of another woman. While it’s a step in the right direction, it’s still hardly enough. But it put city officials on notice that taxpayers are watching.
Then a plan to use some of the money to pay city workers’ pensions drew more howls. But the cost-savings that will result from eliminating some California Public Employee Retirement System fees, building up city reserves and placing pension benefits on a more financially secure footing will protect future funding for all municipal services.
Even Measure N’s promise to hire 100 more police officers and other public safety employees has drawn criticism from groups that also are pressing for training and programs to create a more professional, community-focused force. Good points. Message received.
Just this month, the Sierra Club sounded the warning over plans to spend a large slice of Measure N’s funds on expansion of sports complexes in the southwest and northeast outskirts of the city, while allowing the downtown core “to rot,” as the group contends. Clearly there is a need for balance. Bakersfield needs recreation and cultural amenities, in addition to sound economic development and revitalization of downtown.
Upon passage of Measure N last fall, Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, who campaigned for the tax hike, said, “We’re given the opportunity to show the entire community what we can do when we have additional resources.”
God help you, Councilman Gonzales, and all you other city officials. The community is watching. That’s called community engagement and we need more of that.