Supervisors vote to look at 1-cent sales tax for unincorporated Kern | News

Kern’s Board of Supervisors began the process Tuesday of possibly putting a 1-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot that would apply only to the county’s unincorporated areas and be overseen by a citizen’s committee.

Nearly four years after county voters soundly rejected a similar measure, the board voted 4-0, with Supervisor Mike Maggard absent, to have staff return Tuesday with a ballot proposal that would require approval by a simple majority of voters in unincorporated Kern.

Supervisor Leticia Perez made a motion to request the proposal after a series of county officials and others spoke of the need for “self-determination” to stabilize Kern’s general fund and improve local public services. That followed a staff presentation showing the county’s tax revenues have declined steadily since 2014.

Other members of the board hesitated to second the motion, having expressed reservations with the idea of ​​raising local taxes, especially at a time of soaring inflation. But then Supervisor Phillip Peters seconded Perez’s motion and it won approval.

There was little indication on Tuesday’s meeting agenda that the board was going to take up a tax increase. Instead, there was an item labeled as a “presentation on community engagement efforts, identified needs and public service prioritization.”

When that agenda item came up, county staff led by Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop took the board through the results of public surveys last year and this year regarding what residents would like to see in terms of public services.

The top priorities that surfaced were public safety; mental health and addiction services for people who are homeless; roadwork; emergency medical response; and prevention of property crimes. It was noted that residents of the county’s unincorporated areas lack the breadth and depth of services available to people living in cities.

Next, staff showed that the county’s discretionary income has fallen since 2014, when a drop in global oil prices led to a sharp decline in Kern property tax revenues. The point was made that the oil industry’s prospects have continued to decline as the Newsom administration has targeted in-state oil production, while a statewide property tax exemption on utility-scale solar installations has deprived Kern of an estimated $ 20 million per year in revenue.

The bottom line was that the county government’s discretionary revenue has stagnated during the past seven years, slipping 6 percent to hit about $ 392 million. That figure represents about 12 percent of Kern’s total budget.

Staff noted that 34 of California’s 58 counties charge more than the state’s 7.25 percent sales tax, and that some of those don’t, like Ventura County, generally don’t need to levy a higher tax because they already bring in enough money to support ample public services.

Alsop laid much of the blame with Sacramento, saying the state continues to push unfunded mandates that cost Kern up to $ 500 million per year, and that the oil and gas industry is being “regulated into extinction” with slow permitting and bans on certain oil fields techniques common locally.

He said the sales tax proposal would create an advisory committee to “assist with full transparency” on how the new revenues would be spent.

Among the officials who spoke in support of raising more tax money locally was County Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, who said it’s imperative that Kern have money available to recruit and retain specialized staff.

Dave Nelson, president of the Kern County Firefighters Association, said his group is generally against raising taxes but that it could support the 1-cent sales tax proposal.

“We need to do something to address those (public services) issues,” he said. “We’re under the stranglehold of legislation that’s not going to go away.”

Kern’s director of planning and natural resources, Lorelei Oviatt, said the county needs to stabilize its general fund because investors who would otherwise put money into developing projects locally won’t do so “when we have the kind of crime and the kind of challenges” being experienced now in the county’s unincorporated areas.

“I support this idea of ​​self-determination,” she told the board.

Peters initially resisted endorsing the idea of ​​a sales tax increase, saying he had more questions than answers for staff. He said it was important to show voters what the county has done to address its needs short of raising more money from taxpayers.

But, he said, “I definitely understand the need, and I definitely want to do whatever we can to help support our public safety and our county.”

Supervisor David Couch said he had similar concerns but that agreed public safety is a top priority.

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