Board to consider on July 24

Despite pushback from supervisors, the option for a 1 percent sales tax in unincorporated areas of Kern County is moving forward.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 on Tuesday, with Fifth District Supervisor Leticia Perez absent, to have county counsel draft up material for the sales tax as if it were to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. It would bump the county sales tax from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood brought the proposal to the board as what he considered the last option to stymie a severe drain on his department’s personnel.

The county faces an Aug. 10 deadline to place items on the ballot. The board will have only one meeting to consider that option, scheduled for July 24.

Youngblood noted the sales tax would generate approximately $35 million a year and only apply to the unincorporated areas. It would not overlap local sales taxes applied to cities like Ridgecrest, Bakersfield, or Wasco.

While the tax would filter into the general fund and be utilized for unincorporated areas, Youngblood said he would ask for a significant portion of it, citing several challenges to public safety in the county.

He wasn’t shy about the need for the tax.

“I don’t bring this forward lightly,” Youngblood said. “I’m not one who believes in raising taxes, but I believe we are at a position in this county where I, as a sheriff, have no other alternative but to ask the taxpayers to help bail this county out of a fiscal emergency.”

Deputies haven’t had a pay raise in nearly a decade, and the department continues to lose personnel to retirement or other agencies faster than it can recruit. Youngblood said between 2013 and now, KCSO lost 229 deputies — 73 retired and 140 left for other job opportunities.

In addition, the county is three years through a four-year plan to streamline its budget. When oil prices plummeted three years ago, it hit Kern County’s pocketbook when property taxes from the local oil and gas industry — the largest economic driver. All departments have taken a budget reduction each year.

While KCSO seeks quality deputies and held a few academies, only 66 percent qualify at completion. From recruitment to the final training process, Youngblood said it takes 16 months to train a deputy for patrol. Detention facilities and dispatchers are suffering the same as patrol.

Narcotics, gang, and air units have all been cut. Resources are stretched thin, he added.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Bakersfield seeks to pass its own sales tax in November, with the goal of hiring at least 50 or 60 additional police officers. Youngblood expressed concern they could recruit heavily from KCSO since Bakersfield Police Department offers higher pay.

“I think it’s extremely important that we give deputy sheriffs a substantial pay raise,” Youngblood said. “If we don’t do that first, we will be back here next year asking for the same type of thing.”

That alone could cost between $10-$15 million a year across the entire board for the entire agency, from undersheriff on down.

Youngblood also wants to bring in more deputies to fill the vacant positions he has in order to staff remote substations in the county. Mojave has three vacant slots, Rosamond one, Taft three, Lamont three, and Kern River Valley one.

That brings the local jail into the conversation.

“We are working to reopen the Ridgecrest jail and to staff with regular deputies, so when that jail is empty, we will add additional staff in East Kern to handle calls for service,” Youngblood said.

Without more deputies, substations close down because no one is there to man them.

“We’re at a point now where when a deputy sheriff from one of the substations or local patrol picks another agency to work for, we have no one to backfill that position,” Youngblood said.

Organizations representing Kern County’s firefighters also supported the tax, noting that like KCSO, firefighters are suffering from low morale and departing personnel.

However, some citizen and taxpayer stakeholders voiced objections or concerns.

Roman Agbalog, representing Kern Residents for Sustainable Government, recommended the county take a look at what the city of Bakersfield did by hiring a polling firm to conduct research. Bakersfield also conducted a series of stakeholder outreach meetings and considered the impact a similar sales tax would have on its citizens.

“I understand the county’s economic situation but wonder whether or not about the timing and giving voters time to weigh in,” Agbalog said. “The county of Kern is very large; it’s not contained like the city of Bakersfield.”

Michael Turnipseed, representing Kern Taxpayers Association, said while Youngblood has been a team player over the last three years of budget reduction, there was a problem. A management audit released six months ago with constructive cost-saving measures should have been implemented.

“You need to implement every cost saving and best practice measures to show the public that you’ve done everything possible,” he said. “As far as a being a general tax and, basically, it’s the needs of public safety, we’re concerned it won’t be a public tax.”

He added the county’s last proposed tax measure — benefiting libraries — included a thorough vetting process before supervisors agreed to put it on the ballot following a 3-2 vote. The tax ultimately failed to pass because it required a two-thirds supermajority approval from voters.

Youngblood’s proposed sales tax would require only a simple majority.

Supervisors had their own concerns, both for and against the tax.

Third District Supervisor Mike Maggard, the board chair noted that when Youngblood, as the county’s top law enforcement officer, “comes to us and tells us this is the only way he can see that and assure to provide the public with protection they deserve, that is important to me.”

He said it was a compelling reason to give voters the opportunity to decide for themselves.

First District Supervisor Mick Gleason was more vocal. He said he supports the sheriff’s department and anything to help it succeed in its goal, but the tax doesn’t sit well with him.

“I’m not a big fan of this; I don’t like this,” Gleason said. “I recognize the problem you have, that you have a retention problem, a morale issue ... but for the fact that you say today that if I don’t vote yes on a one-cent sales tax and I’ve got two weeks to do it, then you’re going to start closing substations. That’s frightening.”

He said he doesn’t know how the county has come to his point and was unaware of that drastic level which Youngblood described. The only information he had on the sales tax was a five-minute phone conversation he had with Youngblood.

He added the county’s halfway through its budget reduction plan, which he said streamlined operations and has made Kern County better as a result.

Approving a tax takes the foot off the accelerator and the county won’t complete the goal it set three years ago.

“I’m not saying we don’t need it, don’t have employees that haven’t had a pay raise in nine years, or certain departments have hit rock bottom and can go no further,” Gleason said.

Rather, Gleason took issue with the rollout. When the county proposed its failed library 2016 tax ballot measure, it held more than 20 town hall meetings countywide and gathered input over a year.

“The reason I voted yes for that was because I believed we were transparent and there was a 50-50 chance of that vote passing, that it was not up to me to prevent a well-nourished tax from being put before the taxpayers to have their say,” Gleason said.

Youngblood’s proposal lacks that, he said.

He was also critical over an apparent lack of a business plan for the revenue. The lion’s share might be expected to go toward public safety, but Gleason said the board of supervisors’ makeup could be different four years from now, with different priorities.

“I think a tax increase, dumping it on taxpayers, is not the last option to look at, but I haven’t heard that he hasn’t gone through a lot of other steps yet,” Gleason said.

Youngblood defended his decision and countered Gleason’s argument about only having a week to be informed about the tax.

“This board has heard me for five years telling you where we’re going to wind up, and you say you haven’t heard it,” Youngblood said. “That’s because you haven’t heard it if that’s the case.”

Youngblood added that substations close all by themselves when there are no deputies to staff them. The building will be there, but no deputies will respond to a call.

Youngblood took issue with Gleason’s comments on the county being better than it has been in years.

“That may be true in Ridgecrest, but go to East Bakersfield where I live, go to South Bakersfield, to Boron, or go to Lamont where homicide rates are higher than they have been,” Youngblood said. “Sir, it is not better.”

“If the tax is the only way to fix the problem, then I’m all for it,” Gleason said. “But I don’t think we’ve exhausted all of our options to fix the sheriff’s department budget.”

Supervisors have two weeks to consider the proposal and county counsel will have that same time to prepare draft material and ballot language. Two-thirds of the board need to approve the measure for it to move forward.

If it does make it to the ballot, only voters who live in the unincorporated area will be able to decide.