Editorial: A counterproposal

Mayor Peggy Breeden closed the Aug. 21 meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council with a request for a future agenda item outlining staff salary increases. She said that members of city staff have not gotten a raise since 2008 (although Ridgecrest city salaries posted at https://publicpay.ca.gov/ indicate that this is not the case).

The main flaw with this proposal is that our city has not identified alternate revenue sources that will sustain these salary increases. For decades we’ve struggled against a structural budget deficit that relies on one-time funds and supplemental taxes. According to Transparent Pay California, the city of Ridgecrest spent $7.3 million of its $11.7- million budget on employee salaries in 2018 (the latest available data). Spending more on salaries will only reduce the present level of spending on services and infrastructure — which is already arguably below the ideal.

I think the real opportunity here is to look around at our neighbors who have overcome similar challenges, and find out what we can learn from them. If we can increase the size of our pie, everyone gets a bigger slice. And let’s be honest, the 160 city employees, while important, are not the only ones who deserve to benefit from the city council’s decisions — so do the taxpayers.

We don’t have to look far to find an example of government that has managed to successfully reduce expenses, streamline operations and increase revenue sources.

On Tuesday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors passed a balanced budget — the culmination of four years’ work correcting a devastating $44-million budget deficit (see story, Page 1). In 2015, the price of a barrel of oil plummeted to about a third its previous value. While oil seems like a distant industry to the Indian Wells Valley, the tax revenues collected from these valuable properties in Kern subsidize government spending all over the county.

In 2016, then-County Administrative Officer Jon Nilon unveiled for the Board of Supervisors a plan to survive this unprecedented revenue loss with minimal pain to employees and disruption of services. The multipronged approach was certainly not without impact – the plan relied heavily on cutting staff through attrition. So while few (if any) staff were laid off, every remaining employee worked harder and smarter as vacancies from retirement and resignation went unfilled.

The county adopted “Lean Six Sigma” — a method of resource management that relies on collaborative efforts to improve performance by removing waste and reducing variation. While this discipline would allow our city to increase efficiency (and save money), the approach may also resolve the public’s ongoing complaints that city processes are confusing, expensive and ultimately dysfunctional.

Nilon also noted that in order to continue thriving, the county must diversify its revenue portfolio. Rather than wait for oil prices to recover, county agents proactively pursued other forms of industry to set up operations in Kern County — even offering economic incentives to do so (again, this appears to be the opposite of our city’s approach, where new and existing business owners complain about the rising costs of development in the city).

In the last four years, the county has increased its footprint for alternative energy (including wind and solar) and attracted major operations for international companies like L’Oreal Paris and Amazon.

As our county recovery comes to a close, Kern County Sheriff’s Office will bring its employees from the lowest to among the highest-paid forces in the Central Valley.

One of the most amazing elements of this plan is that Nilon left the county halfway through the process. Ryan Alsop took his place, and with the resolve and support of his board, carried out the plan right on schedule.

Two weeks ago, IWV Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil wrote a guest editorial asking our city leaders to outline their vision for our community. We have yet to see a public response to that question. But when one surfaces, I hope it is accompanied by a comprehensive plan that balances the need for fiscal discipline with our desire for a vibrant economy and quality of life.

Without the commitment to carry out such a plan, the reactive policies that have left our city floundering will continue.

Let’s approach our future with a thoughtful plan that allows every part of our community to grow and flourish.

Story First Published: 2019-08-30