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Kern County Supervisors approve final budget

From our Supervisor

On Aug. 25, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved our budget for Fiscal Year 2020-21. The challenges we face in budgeting for this next fiscal year are many.  While we continue to struggle with little to no year-over-year growth in the county's two primary revenue sources, property tax revenue and sales tax revenue, the cost associated with providing essential services continues to increase, primarily driven by the cost of labor.  This foundational fiscal challenge is compounded this year due to the extraordinary economic impacts of COVID-19, in addition to a prolonged contraction in oil production and related services, both of which are resulting in revenue losses to the County.   Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the downturn in the oil economy locally will present significant fiscal issues for us going forward, depending on the duration of these challenges.  We approved a budget that continues to provide essential services, particularly public safety services, while also positioning the county, fiscally, to manage through an uncertain future, where continued revenue losses are anticipated.  These revenue challenges are not just a Kern County problem, but a problem faced by municipalities all across the country.

While most county departments took a 7.5% cut to balance the budget, public safety departments were once again prioritized by the Board of Supervisors and did not receive any cuts. In fact, the Sheriff's Department and District Attorney received increased funding over last year, and significant investments were made to bolster the Fire Department's operations. This year's budget addresses several issues related to fire service.  The costs associated with providing fire services in our county continue to increase each year, primarily driven by the growing cost of labor, particularly pension costs.  The need for equipment replacement for our Fire Department is also growing.  Fire Chief David Witt has highlighted his need to address a $60 million backlog in new equipment purchases to ensure effective services throughout the county.  Growth in revenues is not keeping pace with these growing needs and costs.  Addressing these issues will require careful planning and full consideration of all options that may be available to us as a Board to lower costs in some areas, while increasing funding for the Department in others.  On this point, while there have been reports that the Board of Supervisors has directed the Fire Chief to "brown out" or close fire stations, we have not done that, and that is not something that was recommended by our CAO as part of this budget.  

With this budget, the Board has invested an additional $4 million in new funding to the Fire Department annually going forward.  This additional new funding was transferred out of the county's General Fund, which is used to pay for many other services, including law enforcement, libraries, parks and animal services.  With this new funding, the Fire Department is now receiving, on a permanent basis going forward, the largest contribution from the county's General Fund than they have ever received.  In addition to this new ongoing operational funding, the Board is also earmarking $10 million dollars for new capital investment for the Fire Department.  This investment will allow the department to purchase 23 new fire engines and emergency response vehicles and a new bulldozer.   These are investments that are needed, and they are investments that the Board will build on going forward to the extent we are able, given very difficult economic circumstances.

During budget discussions, hundreds of county residents voiced their concerns about the permanent closure of libraries.  This budget included no permanent closure of any branch of our Kern County Library system.  Due to COVID-19, all Kern County library branches have been closed to the public since March, under Governor Newsom's statewide orders, and they are likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future given the situation with the pandemic.  Many of our libraries are currently being used as COVID-19 testing sites and as distribution points for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the small business community.  Where we can, library services are curbside only and those services are being expanded where we are able. Again, this budget proposes no closures.

We are in extraordinary times and are presented with enormous challenges, challenges we've never had to face.  Please know that as we make decisions concerning our budget, those decisions are focused on sustaining vital county services. It is an honor to represent you on the Board of Supervisors.