Supes pass budget

Four-year county recovery plan comes to a close

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Supes pass budgetWith the passage of its fiscal year 2019-20 budget on Tuesday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors reached the “highly anticipated end to a four-year strategy to resolve deficits stemming from property-tax declines.”

When oil prices plummeted in 2015, the board approved using reserve funds to alleviate the impact of $44 million in revenue losses, while implementing a long-range plan that would spread reductions over numerous budget years.

The county also adopted the Lean Six Sigma process to reduce waste, and helped establish new revenue sources to decrease Kern’s historic dependency on oil-related revenues.

“This success is the result of years of the board’s prioritization and commitment to careful long-term planning and the prudent management of resources,” states the budget summary prepared by County Administrative Officer Ryan J. Alsop.

“Strong, consistent property-tax growth from residential, commercial and agricultural properties, in concert with constrained spending by departments, has contributed to meeting the plan goal.

“While the county is on a path to address its fiscal crisis by the end of 2020, the county must plan and implement structural change for the long-term fiscal health and sustainability of the county.”

Despite mitigating the general fund deficit, said Alsop, the county continues to face challenges of rising pensions, staffing retention and deferred maintenance.

This final installment of the recovery plan balances the budget through continued reduction of costs and the use of one-time fund balances, according to Alsop.

“This four-year plan of phased-in reductions allows management to meet budgetary guidelines while limiting service-level impacts,” said Alsop. “On a positive note, the projected use of reserves for the four-year plan has declined by nearly $24 million — primarily the result of higher property tax revenue and greater use of fund balance carry-forward.

(The complete budget document is viewable at www.kerncounty.com/cao/

CountyBudget.aspx).

Handled separately from the general fund is the fire fund. Interim Kern County Fire Chief David Witt reported to the board, noting that his department managed to achieve savings through Lean Six Sigma despite a 37-percent increase in calls over the last decade.

2nd District Supervisor Zack Scrivner asked what was driving the increase in service calls. Witt noted that the county population is increasing, as is the number of visitors traveling on Kern County roadways.

“With increased people, we are going to have increased calls — fires, vehicular accidents, hazardous spills, medical emergencies,” said Witt.

1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason asked Witt whether he anticipates eliminating the structural deficit in the fire fund within the five-year plan.

“Most assuredly, our goal is to develop an economic way to eliminate efficiency,” said Witt. “The next couple of years are going to be difficult, but we see an opening with three years. We anticipate being very close.”

“We are vitally concerned and anxious for the complete resolve,” said Gleason. “We see and hear things going on that are positive, but the skeptical nature of this whole deal is still there.”

During the public hearing, members of staff (past and present) as well as residents expressed concerns about some of the reductions in service, as well as the level of compensation paid to county employees.

“I think all of us would not be up here celebrating closing the fiscal deficit … if it were not for our employees working so hard,” said Scrivner. “The fact that we’ve closed this deficit largely through attrition means we have fewer employees in our ranks.”

Scrivner said that the county has endeavored to provide, where possible, increases in employee compensation. “But it’s been very difficult to provide increases while we’re also cutting.”

He commended the dedication of the staff to carrying out the level of service with a reduced force.

“The board supplies the policy and the framework, but it’s the rank and file who implement it.”

Alsop acknowledged that dealing with employee issues remains “one of the most important, complex and difficult challenges of my office.” The daunting task is made more difficult in a prolonged period of reduction.

He noted, however, that the board has authorized increased benefits in many circumstances. Those include a recently approved contract increase in pay among the staff of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

Each member of the Service Employees International Union got a $1,000 bonus and an additional 11 paid days off. The board also approved 5-percent step increases for some 1,686 SEIU employees.

“Just this morning the board approved three additional paid days off for winter recess and an 8.5-percent salary increase for [Department of Human Services] supervisors. We are doing what we can, where we can. We respect and appreciate all of our employees,” said Alsop.

“Your board is paving a way for this county that I believe is going to improve this county long-term. There are, I think, exciting days ahead.”

Story First Published: 2019-08-30