The fortunes of the two largest government entities in the southern San Joaquin Valley, the city of Bakersfield and its four-block Truxtun Avenue neighbor, Kern County, took wildly divergent paths on November 6, 2018.
Each of the two local governments asked voters to tax themselves an extra penny on every dollar spent at local stores — an extra penny on every 10 points — raising the sales tax from 7.25% to 8.25%.
No voter jumped for joy at the prospect of more taxes, no matter how invisible the proposed increase, but the mood in the voting booths, city versus county, was very different. The municipal sales tax initiative, losing throughout election night, finally succeeded: When all the votes were counted nearly a week later, the N measure score was 50.05% from yes to 49.95% no.
Supporters of Measure I, a similar measure simultaneously pushed by Kern County, woke up to the same miserable reality they had gone to bed with on election night — a resounding defeat, 64.68% no 35.32% yes.
Since then, just about everything proponents of each election measure had hoped (or feared) has come true. The city is strengthening its police department, repairing and protecting its parks, cleaning up its streets, creating housing and various programs for the homeless, filling long-vacant positions in central departments, preparing its future with informed study, and more. That’s the kind of stuff a local government can do with an extra $101 million a year, which the city expects to bring in next fiscal year.
The county, meanwhile, is struggling in many of those areas, including the sheriff’s office, which remains alarmingly short-staffed, in large part because it can’t pay competitive salaries.
It’s time for the county to ask voters for help again. Raise sales tax in unincorporated areas by a lousy copper. Put Son of Measure I on the November ballot.
And start promoting it now. Measure I was something of a rush job, placed on the ballot at the 11th hour largely in response to the city’s Measure N. campaign. These errors should be avoided the next time if it should happen.
But it has to happen, and that’s the first step: the supervisory board has to meet, talk about it and make a decision.
Here’s why the idea of a sales tax increase should go forward.
With a sales tax infusion of, say, $40 million a year, the county government could bolster first responder services; move homeless, mentally disabled and drug addicts off the streets into housing and programs; protect and restore parks and open spaces; strengthen the application of the code; support and encourage private renewable energy operations; develop water storage solutions that support agriculture; create workforce development incentives that can attract, retain and diversify the industry; and start making decisions based more on long-term fiscal sustainability than immediate, temporary urgency.
We are in this mess because property tax revenue, the main source of discretionary funding for county governments, has fallen seriously behind.
Over the past seven years (2014-21), property assessment in Kern County has increased 4.18%, or 0.59% per year. These numbers don’t even keep up with inflation (17% or 2.24% per year), let alone meet the needs of a rapidly growing county with rapidly changing challenges.
Meanwhile, increases in assessed land value in other major California counties have allowed these local governments to operate with much more forward-thinking freedom.
Fresno County saw a 40.68% increase in assessed property value over the same seven-year period. In Los Angeles County it was 42.04%, Sacramento County 49.86%, San Joaquin County 57.36%, San Luis Obispo County 47.24%, Santa Barbara County by 39.51%, Tulare County by 38.28%, and Ventura County by 29.56%. Adding to this wild property valuation disparity, of these eight counties, only Ventura (like Kern) does not have a local share of sales tax revenue. Yes, Kern gets the short end on both types of tax revenue.
The several counties that share a border with Kern have seen, on average, a 36% increase in assessed values since 2014. Other counties in the Central Valley have seen an increase, on average, of 45% over the same period .
In fact, Kern County is last in California in the increase in assessed property value – 58th out of 58. And not just last – 10% below the next lowest rated county. To force a baseball analogy, Kern County is the 1962 New York Mets.
Among the many reasons this matters: Counties with government-supported quality of life characteristics like low crime, well-maintained streets, and attractive parks attract desirable, higher-paying industries and all that goes with them. . Counties that lack these things keep sinking deeper.
An ironic closing note: If you live in an unincorporated part of Kern County, you’re probably paying that extra 1% anyway, but you’re not getting your share of the benefits. People who reside in county pockets and appendages but shop within city limits – including those who live in Rosedale, La Cresta/Alta Vista, Oildale, Hillcrest, Old Stockdale, Bakersfield Country Club, Edison and other neighborhoods in the urban footprint – are basically paying 8.25% sales tax but getting 7.25% services.
The gap is not limited to those who live in unincorporated metro Bakersfield. Residents of the southeast corner of Kern County, for example, like Rosamond, likely shop in Lancaster and Palmdale. And, if so, they pay Los Angeles County sales tax – 10% – and get none of the benefits.
On behalf of LA County (as well as Bakersfield, Ridgecrest, Arvin, Taft, Wasco, and Delano, whose residents accepted their sales tax increases), thank you.
So, if residents of incorporated Kern are already paying a jurisdiction’s additional sales tax, what difference will a county tax increase make? Who will pay it? Answer: Among others, visitors to the county, including tourists and truckers leaving the highway to refuel. Their contributions to local tax revenues would not be incidental.
The time has come to fix this problem. In fact, the time was many years ago, but now will have to do.