By Elizabeth Mendia
Kern Valley Sun
The Kern County Board of Supervisors, facing a projected $56.5 million dollar budget shortfall for the 2020/2021 fiscal year, voted last week to slash firefighter overtime pay, keep a number of libraries and animal shelters closed, and reduce most department budgets by 7.5% ahead of its final vote on the budget in August.
“I know how hard this is,” Supervisor Mick Gleason, said at the meeting on June 30th, “But it is the way it is. I believe the fiscal cliff we’re heading for is real. I believe we need to be fair to all of our employees, not just the firefighters. I believe that we have a strategy in place”
The cut to the firefighter’s overtime pay has been at issue for years. “We have spent literally thousands of hours discussing, during my time here, in the three-and-a-half years since I’ve been here,” said Ryan J. Alsop Chief Administrative Officer, who said that the budget crisis is expected to continue into next fiscal year and is a result of lost sales tax revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a precipitous decline in oil prices and because property taxes in Kern County have only grown .3% in the past five years, whereas other comparable counties have seen large property tax base increases in the same period.
In turn, in a letter against the cutting of firefighter overtime pay, Counsel for the firefighter’s union said that its members had not received a pay increase, not offset by a reduction in benefits, since 2008, and that the board’s action would amount to an 8.5% reduction in pay. “KCFU members are essential safety professionals,” the union said, “who continue to come to work and save lives on a daily basis while other employees shelter in place in their homes or telecommute.”
Regarding the cutting of the Rio Bravo Hotshot Crew, which the Sun previously reported on, supervisor Gleason asked of Fire Chief David Whitt, “You have coverage, in the Kern River Valley, despite disbanding that crew, is that correct?”
“Yes, we do have coverage. We have fire stations up there. We have three fire stations that are fully staffed. Ready to go,” said Chief Witt “In addition to that, I have a fuels crew or initial attack crew up at Alta Sierra that can drop down off the hill, a small number of people; when I disbanded Rio Bravo we also reallocated some of those positions…“I look it as a temporary thing, and that when finances get better, I most assuredly want the Rio Bravo Hotshots back in the Kern River Valley”
Only 8 of the county’s 24 libraries would physically reopen during the 20/21 fiscal year. The Lake Isabella library is currently open only for curbside service and it is unknown at this time if it will remain closed. The Lake Isabella Animal shelter is expected to remain closed for the remainder of the year.
Anyone wishing to express views on the budget can do so at official hearings on August 3 and 4. The final budget will be voted in late August.